A new study is being conducted at the University of Leicester to find out if consuming caffeine during pregnancy affects the unborn baby's risk of developing leukemia in childhood.
According to lead author Dr Marcus Cooke, the study is a unique opportunity to determine the sources of chromosomal alterations during pregnancy, with the ultimate aim of reducing the risk of childhood leukemias.
Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow and white blood cells.
"We want to find out whether consuming caffeine could lead to the sort of DNA changes in the baby that are linked to risk of leukemia. This is an important area of research because it is vital that mothers are given the best advice possible," said Cooke.
Although there are currently no convincing links between caffeine and cancer risks, previous studies have found a link between alterations to DNA, which are sometimes found in newborn babies, to an increased risk of leukemia. Caffeine has been shown to cause these kinds of changes to DNA.
Scientists know caffeine can pass back and forth across the placenta, meaning the unborn baby will come in contact with caffeine consumed by the mother.
Cooke and his team want to find out what impact this can have on the unborn baby.
Their research will involve working with a group of 1,340 pregnant women. After birth, a blood sample is routinely taken from each newborn baby's heel.
It is these samples that will then be tested for DNA changes. By comparing any DNA changes to the levels of caffeine the mother consumed, the team will try to find out if the two are linked.
If a link is discovered, further research would be needed to see whether this meant babies with these DNA changes would be more likely to develop leukemia, and to examine evidence of exposure to other DNA damaging agents.
The study will also collect other lifestyle and dietary data to see if there are other factors, which might increase the risk.