A research team that includes scientists from the Texas Biomedical Research Institute reported today that inadequate nutrition during pregnancy predisposes offspring to becoming prediabetic before adolescence. Diabetes is an epidemic worldwide and a major health concern in San Antonio.

“This is the first time that diabetes has been shown to have prenatal origins in a primate model,” said Texas Biomed’s Anthony Comuzzie, Ph.D.

Published this week in the American Journal of Physiology and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study was led by scientists from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA).

The study presents the strongest evidence yet that vulnerability to type 2 diabetes can begin in the womb, giving new insight into the mechanisms that underlie a potentially devastating disease at the center of a worldwide epidemic. The study, conducted in 18 baboon primates at Texas Biomed’s Southwest Primate Research Center, finds that when mothers are even moderately undernourished while pregnant and breastfeeding, their offspring are consistently found to be prediabetic before adolescence.

“Poor nutrition at critical periods of development can hinder growth of essential organs such as the pancreas, which sees a significantly decrease in its ability to secrete insulin. Our study is the first to show in a primate that poor nutrition during fetal and early life can damage the pancreas and predispose to type 2 diabetes,” said UTHSCSA’s Peter W. Nathanielsz, M.D., Ph.D., the senior author of the study.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body develops resistance to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Although the body may initially compensate by secreting more insulin, eventually the pancreas cannot produce enough of the hormone to keep blood sugar from rising. In poorly controlled diabetes, elevated blood sugar severely damages the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves. The consequences can be fatal and include heart disease, stroke, amputations, blindness and kidney failure.

Worldwide, diabetes is an escalating public health crisis. According to estimates from the World Health Organization, 366 million people will be diabetic by the 2030, up from 171 million in 2000.

In the study, just before they reached puberty, six young baboons from nutritionally restricted mothers showed increases in fasting glucose, fasting insulin and other hallmarks of prediabetes. In contrast, the 12 young baboons whose mothers received adequate nutrition displayed none of these traits.

The central importance of this observation is that the mothers’ food intake was only moderately restricted – similar to the decrease faced in the United State by many people living with food insecurity, Comuzzie added.

Others on the study included Jaehyek Choi, Ph.D.; Cun Li, M.D., Ph.D.; and Thomas J. McDonald, Ph.D., all of UTHSCSA and Vicki Mattern of Texas Biomed.

Texas Biomed, formerly the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research.  Located on a 200-acre campus on the northwest side of San Antonio, Texas, the Institute partners with hundreds of researchers and institutions around the world, targeting advances in the fight against AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, parasitic infections and a host of other infectious diseases, as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, psychiatric disorders, and problems of pregnancy,  For more information on Texas Biomed, go to www.TxBiomed.org, or call Joe Carey, Texas Biomed’s Vice President for Public Affairs, at 210-258-9437.