Women who eat a poor diet during pregnancy increase their child's type 2 diabetes risk

Women who eat an unhealthy diet during pregnancy may be putting their offspring at risk for later developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

The researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that a particular gene known as HNF4A is regulated by a mother's diet. The finding is important because previous studies have shown that this gene plays a role in type 2 diabetes risk. It may affect development of the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin, which is important for controlling blood sugar.

It is becoming better understood that the interaction of genetic and environmental factors is critical in determining who will develop type 2 diabetes. The new study helps researchers understand the mechanism behind this.

In testing conducted on laboratory mice, the researchers found that pregnant females fed an unhealthy diet gave birth to offspring that had reduced expression of the HNF4A gene. This caused pancreatic cells to remain underdeveloped and made these mice more prone to developing type 2 diabetes.

"It is remarkable that maternal diet can mark our genes so they remember events in very early life," said Dr. Miguel Constancia, who led the investigation. "Our findings reveal a novel mechanism by which maternal diet and aging interact through epigenetic processes to determine our risk of age-associated diseases."

He added that epigenetic studies into the ways environmental factors affect genetic traits are relatively new. Earlier understandings of genes held that they were relatively unchanging. However, as the field develops, it may yield many new findings that increase doctors' knowledge of how to help individuals avoid diseases like type 2 diabetes.