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Using metabolomics to understand maternal and fetal health

By Vanessa Carias PhD, Genome Alberta Research Program Manager

A pregnant woman’s diet affects not only her own maternal health but that of the developing fetus. But how do doctors know what diet to recommend which will increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby? Dr. Britz-McKibbin and his team who are part of the McMaster node of The Metabolomics Innovation Centre, are working on answering that question using a new technique involving metabolomics. Metabolomics is the study of small molecules known as metabolites present in biological samples such as cells, tissues, or organisms. By analyzing metabolites related to human health, scientists can identify biomarkers and mechanisms involved in disease and development.

Metabolomics analysis faces challenges when being applied to large-scale studies due to low sample throughput, high costs, and poor sensitivity. Due to these challenges, metabolomic studies on the diets of ethnically diverse populations of pregnant women to evaluate the effects on maternal and fetal health have been limited. Currently assessments of diets rely on self-reporting questionnaires that may carry some user bias when documenting food intake alone. Understanding the effects of a mother’s diet on maternal and fetal health at the molecular level can lead to diet recommendations that will aid in a baby’s healthy development.

To address the challenges of analyzing metabolites in large-scale epidemiological studies, Dr. Britz-McKibbin and his team developed a new technique which they call multisegment injection-capillary electrophoresis-mass spectrometry (MSI-CE-MS).
That is a lot to take in all at once so break it down like this:
  • Multisegment injection means that they can analyze multiple samples (up to 7 independent samples) within one run with high quality control measures, which increases sample throughput.
  • Capillary electrophoresis is the technique used to separate the molecules.
  • Mass spectrometry is the analytical tool that measures and identifies these metabolites.
 This method is practical and cheaper when compared to other separation and analytical techniques, especially when working with samples of small amounts. If you want to dig deeper into the MSI-CE-MS technique read the team’s paper published in Nature Protocols.

The new technique was used in a study of 1,004 pregnant women in their second trimester. The women in this study identified as either Caucasian, South Asian, or Aboriginal, highlighting a more representative and diverse population of pregnant women from across Canada. The study identified reference measurements for 53 (out of 66) serum metabolites studied and associated them with specific foods reported by the pregnant women in the study. The use of these serum biomarkers to determine the associated risk for gestational diabetes and childhood obesity of the offspring is currently under investigation.

Ultimately by using metabolomics to assess dietary effects on maternal, fetal, and childhood health, dietary recommendations could be made to expecting mothers. This new technique could result in a routine and cost-effective way to improve risk assessment of maternal health conditions and childhood health outcomes.

Genome Alberta and Genome Canada have supported the work of The Metabolomics Innovation Centre since its inception, and it is encouraging to see the research teams take important steps such as this. By continuing our support, we hope this could lead to further research on specific diet recommendations for pregnant women.

Using metabolomics to understand maternal and fetal health

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