The influence of environmental factors early in life on the onset of diseases such as obesity and diabetes in later years will be studied in a major, long-term study of pregnant mothers and their foetuses as well as infant children.
The study by three Singapore biomedical institutions, inspired by research evidence showing that the environment in which a baby is conceived, born and grows up determines the child's growth and development.
The research will involve scientists from the KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), the National University Hospital (NUH) and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), which is part of ASTAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research).
For the study, led by Dr. Chong Yap Seng, the team of Singaporean and international researchers is recruiting a total of 1,200 expectant mothers.
The study will initially track children from foetal development to 3 years of age, and subsequently, if further funding is secured, as they grow up to become adults.
"Present strategies for the management of obesity and diabetes are focused on the prevention of secondary complications rather than primary disease," said Chong.
"There is increasing evidence that a baby's environment from conception to birth determines its childhood development and lifelong health and that factors in early development are major causes of metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus," said Sir Peter Gluckman.
Knowledge gained from the study will be of immense importance to Singapore, said Associate Professor Dr. Kenneth Kwek.
And with the increased prevalence of obesity and diabetes in Singapore, there is a need to study the "Asian Phenotype" as much information about these diseases originates from studies conducted in the west.
Research, however, indicates that Asians seem more prone to metabolic diseases at lower body mass index.
Also, different ethnic groups seem to be at different risk levels, said Chong.
"The development of this research is timely as these diseases are rapidly increasing in prevalence throughout the world, especially in Asia. While much research in this area has been conducted in Caucasian populations, data has suggested that aspects of the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of metabolic diseases could differ between Asians and Caucasians, and also differ between the various Asian ethnic groups.
"There is an urgent need to try and identify biomarkers, such as epigenetic changes, that indicate increased risk for metabolic diseases and use these to tailor interventions for individuals at risk," added Dr. Chong.