New technique uses the study of small molecules to understand maternal and fetal health

Pregnant woman with bowl of fresh vegetables, broccoli, leaf salad, tomato.
Pregnant woman with bowl of fresh vegetables, broccoli, leaf salad, tomato. Healthy nutrition during pregnancy. Prenatal care and clean eating while expecting baby.

Understanding maternal health at the cellular level can help make dietary recommendations for a healthy pregnancy

A pregnant woman’s diet affects not only her own maternal health but that of the developing fetus. But how can doctors know what diet to recommend that could increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby? Scientists can use metabolomics, the study of small molecules known as metabolites present in biological samples such as cells, tissues, or organisms to understand human health.  By analyzing metabolites, they 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.

New analytical technique is cheaper and more practical for separating and analyzing small molecules

To address the challenges of analyzing metabolites, Dr. Britz-McKibbin and his team who are leading the McMaster node of The Metabolomics Innovation Centre, are working on a new technique involving metabolomics. The method they have developed is practical and cheaper when compared to other separation and analytical techniques, especially when working with samples of small amounts.

Metabolite analysis could help assess dietary effects on maternal, fetal, and childhood health

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.

Additional Resources
  • Scientific article in Nature Protocols “The maternal serum metabolome by multisegment injection-capillary electrophoresis-mass spectrometry: a high-throughput platform and standardized data workflow for large-scale epidemiological studies”

Author: Vanessa Carias  | Published date: March 30, 2021

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