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Dr. Freathy’s team will study measures including the weight of a baby and placenta, and how early or late the baby is born

£1.4 million for genetics research on how obesity in pregnancy affects mother and baby

A new £1.4 million award from the Wellcome Trust will help researchers at the University of Exeter understand the processes that link a pregnant mother’s obesity with health problems for her and her baby.

Obesity is known to be one of the most common risk factors for complications of pregnancy and birth. Now, Dr Rachel Freathy, at the University of Exeter Medical School, has been awarded a Wellcome Senior Research Fellowship to study human genetics data in babies, mothers and fathers to understand the mechanisms involved in causing these health problems, with a view to improving care.

Over five years, Dr. Freathy’s team will study measures including the weight of a baby and placenta, and how early or late the baby is born. They will investigate how these measures link with known risk factors connected to obesity in mothers, such as pregnancy-related diabetes and high blood pressure.

Dr Freathy said: “We’ve long known that obesity in pregnancy increases the risk of a range of complications for mother and baby – yet little is known about the mechanisms that underpin these problems. It’s essential that we understand processes such as how a fetus regulates its own growth, how the mother’s glucose and blood pressure affect the fetus, and how the fetus itself might influence changes in the mother’s body in pregnancy. The award from Wellcome gives us an amazing opportunity to really understand these processes and how they act together to influence risk in an individual pregnancy, which could help us to personalise antenatal care in the future.”

Previous work led by Dr. Freathy’s team has identified 190 links between our genetic code and birth weight, and has shown that many of these genetic links to birth weight also influence risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes in later life.

Professor Clive Ballard, Executive Dean and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “Huge congratulations to Rachel, who has built up internationally-renowned expertise in the field of the genetics of mothers and babies. Already her work has shaped understanding in this field, and has the potential to make a significant impact on care.”

Date: 9 June 2020

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