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Risk factors

Mothers' surgery affects children's genetic makeup

Bariatric surgery in obese women leads to altered genetic makeup in later pregnancies
Study suggests link between obese mothers and overweight children includes genetic as well as environmental factors

Obese mothers who undergo bariatric surgery give birth to children with an altered genetic makeup, leading to reduced cardiovascular risk factors, according to new research presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress.

Researchers at Laval University found that children born after their mothers had a biliopancreatic diversion were less likely to be obese, had improved insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, and an improved cardiovascular disease risk profile, compared to those born to obese mothers who did not undergo an operation.

The finding suggests that maternal obesity has significant genetic effects on the metabolic health of the child.

"Our research found that maternal obesity affects the genes of the offspring," said Dr Frédéric Guénard, a post-doctoral fellow under the supervision of Dr Marie-Claude Vohl of the Functional Food Institute at Laval University. "The good news is that we can do something to change this outcome: reducing obesity in the mother has a positive health impact on the health of future offspring."

Studying siblings from 20 mothers who had given birth both before and after a biliopancreatic diversion, the researchers determined that the children born after the mother had undergone surgery demonstrated very different DNA methylation levels in 5,500 genes, compared to the children born before the operation.

DNA methylation levels - the concentration of methyl group molecules bound to DNA - can affect the expression of individual genes. Generally, a higher level of methylation “turns off” a gene expression, while a lower level means a gene is “turned on”.

The mothers who underwent biliopancreatic diversion had an average starting BMI of 40, which dropped to an average of 27 after the operation.

"We know our genetic makeup influences our children's risks – but so can our environment," said Dr Beth Abramson, spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, who helped fund Dr Guénard’s research.

"For example, if a disease runs in a family, we know to watch out for it in the children as they age,” she said. “This study shows that external factors also influence our risk for heart disease – and that of our offspring by switching genes on or off in our DNA; providing a glimpse as to why this occurs. This is why lifestyle behaviours are so important."

Dr Guénard said that further genetic study is needed to find out if weight loss changes the methylation profile of the genes of the children of mothers who lose weight through other means.

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