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Environmental Factor, June 2012

Scientists explore developmental origins of disease

By Thaddeus Schug

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Birnbaum pointed to some of the age-dependent disease risks associated with early-life environmental exposures. (Slide courtesy of Linda Birnbaum)

Jerry Heindel emphasized that exposure prevention in early life can have substantial impact on disease prevalence later in life.

Heindel emphasized that exposure prevention in early life can have substantial impact on disease prevalence later in life. (Graphic courtesy of Jerry Heindel)

Experts from around the world gathered May 14-16, at the Espace Saint-Martin Conference Center in Paris, to examine the animal and human data supporting the hypothesis that exposures during fetal and postnatal development can lead to functional deficits and increased disease risk later in life. The meeting was attended by more than 250 participants, many of them leading researchers on early-life exposures and diseases.

The meeting was the third International Conference on Fetal Programming and Developmental Toxicity (PPTOX III), (http://www.toxicology.org/ai/meet/cct_pptoxiii.asp)  titled “Environmental Stressors in the Developmental Origins of Disease: Evidence and Mechanisms.” Meeting co-chairman Philippe Grandjean, M.D., opened the meeting, stating, “The goal here is to examine the animal and human data that supports the hypothesis.” Grandjean went on to note that scientists participating in the conference would be reporting findings that identify some of the mechanisms for the effects, as well as identify research gaps and challenges.

Developmental effects of early-life exposures

NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., followed Grandjean with a presentation titled “Developmental Programming by Nutrition or Environmental Chemical Exposures: Two Sides of the Same Coin.” Heindel argued that the adverse effects caused by poor early-life nutrition are very similar to the effects of chemical exposures during early stages of development. According to Heindel, “Both poor nutrition and environmental exposures are likely occurrences for many populations, and thus a high percentage of individuals may be at risk of environmental-induced diseases.”

Heindel and others referred to work performed by David Barker, M.D., Ph.D., who, in the mid-1980s, found a negative correlation between birth weight and the rate of death from coronary heart disease, later dubbed the Barker Hypothesis. (http://www.thebarkertheory.org/)  The concept that stressors, early in life, influence later-life health outcomes, now includes non-nutritional early-life exposures that have been shown to alter the body's physiology, and is termed the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was a very active participant during the meeting, repeatedly questioning, challenging, and offering scientific insight.  Birnbaum also delivered a very animated presentation titled “Environmental Stressors in the Development of Disease: Where Do We Go From Here?” Birnbaum noted that developmental toxicity is a particularly difficult field to study. “We must focus our concern on functional deficits now, rather than just investigating known diseases such as cancer,” added Birnbaum, underscoring both the challenges of the research and its tremendous potential for preventing disease.

Robert Barouki, M.D., of Paris Descartes University, co-chair of the conference organizing committee, closed the meeting with a challenge to policymakers to take action to prevent developmental toxicity. Barouki stated, “Scientific evidence is now available, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. Nutritional imbalances or exposure to certain chemicals during the prenatal period could have consequences for health later in life. Although we don’t know the exact magnitude of the consequences, the science is there and is ripe for public action.”

The PPTOX IV meeting will be held Nov. 5-7, 2014, at the International Conference Center in Kitakyushu, Japan.

(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a health scientist in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)


PPTOX IV will be held Nov. 5-7, 2014, at the International Conference Center in Kitakyushu, Japan.

PPTOX IV will be held Nov. 5-7, 2014, at the International Conference Center in Kitakyushu, Japan. (Photo courtesy of PPTOX)


Espace Saint-Martin Conference Center welcome sign for third International Conference on Fetal Programming and Developmental Toxicity (PPTOX III)

The three-day meeting was held May 14-16, 2012, at the Espace Saint-Martin Conference Center in Paris. (Photo courtesy of PPTOX)


Preconference symposium on preventing non-communicable diseases by reducing early-life exposures

As part of the Institute’s efforts to increase awareness of the role of environmental exposures in global health, NIEHS organized a four-hour symposium May 13 on early-life exposures and opportunities for primary prevention (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2012/6/science-origins/file72241.pdf) (328KB) of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The symposium, held in conjunction with the PPTOX III meeting in Paris, brought together international leaders in the global initiatives with leading scientific experts in epigenetics and developmental origins of health and disease, to combat the major NCDs, such as cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease. Organized by NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., and a planning committee that included Heindel, the event featured keynote presentations by Birnbaum and Grandjean, an NIEHS grantee, as well as the head of The NCD Alliance Ann Keeling. A closing panel that included Cristina Rabadan-Diehl, Ph.D., deputy director of the Office of Global Health at National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, discussed how this emerging science could be incorporated into ongoing and planned prevention strategies for NCDs.

The symposium involved many of the speakers and organizers for the PPTOX III general meeting. Balbus said that participants plan to submit a commentary from the workshop for publication in The Lancet.



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