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August 2005 Issue
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Nutrition making the genes fit in pregnancy

 Obstetrics & Gynaecology

A new study conducted by the University of Adelaide and the CSIRO aims to better understand what effect the food eaten by pregnant women has on their genetic makeup and consequently the health of their babies.

A PhD student with the University of Adelaide's Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Denise Furness, is conducting the study through CSIRO Human Nutrition.

She says she is focusing on the role B vitamins such as folate play in preventing common pregnancy diseases through the way they interact genetically with the mother's body.

"What we already know is that too much of a naturally occurring chemical in the body called homocysteine, is associated with various complications of pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)" Ms Furness said.

"This excess of homocysteine can result from a diet that doesn't contain enough vitamins like B6, B12 or folic acid, or from common changes to the genes which control how the body processes homocysteine.

"What we are trying to establish is how a woman's diet can interact with her genes during pregnancy to enable her baby to grow healthily, and without fear of complications for mother or baby."

Ms Furness' research is in the relatively new field of nutrigenomics, which aims to provide a molecular understanding of how chemicals in our food affect health by altering the expression and/or structure of an individual's genetic makeup.

Under certain circumstances and in some individuals, diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases. As a result, "personalised nutrition" - dietary intervention based on knowledge of an individual's genetic makeup and nutrional requirements - can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic disease.

"There is still a lot we don't know about B vitamin metabolism and how it affects pregnant women, but I'm hoping that my research will go some way to improving that," Ms Furness said.

"Nutrigenomics is a very exciting field of research and, in the case of my research, the potential health impact it could have for mothers and their babies is significant."

Story by Ben Osborne

Volunteers are needed for Denise Furness' study, which is being held in conjunction with the Women's and Children's Hospital. To take part, participants must be in the early stages of pregnancy.

To register your interest, contact Ms Furness on (08) 8161 8226 or 0412 613 985, or via email.

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Denise Furness
Photo by Ben Osborne

Denise Furness
Photo by Ben Osborne

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