NIH grant supports additional baby metabolism research

A five-year, $2.5 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health will help East Carolina University faculty members continue research on ways to curb generational obesity.

The project, led by Dr. Nick Broskey and titled “Effect of Maternal Exercise in Women with Obesity on Offspring Mesenchymal Stem Cell Metabolism,” is an ancillary grant to previous and current ECU studies on exercise and its effects on pregnant mothers and their babies. Broskey said what the baby encounters during mom’s pregnancy potentially sets up their metabolism for the rest of their life, which provides the base for the new research grant to benefit baby and infant health.

“This is very exciting to me, because historically ECU has done so much around metabolic diseases, obesity and diabetes,” said Broskey, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance. “This is a new way to look at it and a new way to look at prevention. I always say that you can’t prevent anything earlier than when a baby is in the womb. This leads us to think about the obesity epidemic in a different light. It’s studying what is possibly being altered in utero that makes the next generation susceptible to obesity, and how can exercise prevent that from happening.”

Cells are being collected from the umbilical cord at birth as part of colleague Dr. Linda May’s research involving pregnant women with and without obesity. That research analyzes benefits to mothers and babies, while Broskey’s focus is exclusively on analysis of umbilical cord derived cell types and how this may correlate with metabolic outcomes of the baby.

Data has shown that exercise benefits are even greater for babies born by women with obesity, compared to women without obesity. Using exercise as an intervention during pregnancy helps to understand what exactly is changing in the fetal cellular metabolism.

“We hope to see improvements in how the cells burn fat or carbohydrate for energy, how the cells store fat and how the cells’ mitochondria might produce energy to a greater capacity, if the moms exercise,” Broskey said. “All of these things, mechanistically, will lead itself potentially to a healthier baby over time.”

The University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus will assist ECU in studying what prenatal changes benefit the baby and their metabolism.

“We are always interested in the mechanisms and what does maternal exercise really do to improve offspring health and metabolism,” Broskey said. “Now, this grant is the first of its kind that can answer the mechanistic side of what is being changed in the baby’s cells with maternal exercise in women with obesity.”

Research reported in this release was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01DK137945. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.