Developmental Origins of Health and Disease
Jerry Heindel, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
Many diseases and conditions result from a combination of genetics and environmental exposures. Environmental health scientists strive to understand better exactly when and how genetics and environmental factors interact to lead to disease.
Studies of the developmental origins of health and disease suggest that exposures occurring while tissues and organs are developing increase risk for disease in all stages of life and sometimes in future generations. Diseases and conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, asthma, cardiovascular diseases, dyslipidemia, cognitive and behavioral disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, some cancers, and reproductive disorders are thought to result at least partly from environmental exposures that occur in the womb or during childhood.
Researchers supported by NIEHS are working to increase the knowledge of how certain diseases or conditions originate during critical windows of development. They are identifying environmental stressors that increase disease risk and are investigating how heavy metals, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, and other chemicals can change normal development in a way that leads to later disease or conditions. Researchers also are pinpointing times during development when we are the most susceptible to the combined effects of environmental exposures and genetic factors. Recently, grantees are examining preconception as another sensitive window of exposure, as well as the placenta as a site of endocrine disruptor action and its role in fetal health.
NIEHS grantees are, for example, studying the long-term health impact of developmental exposure to arsenic, phthalates, flame retardants, and some pesticides; the association between perinatal exposure to bisphenol A and later development of breast tumors, as well as the genetics of breast cancer risk during critical windows of development. Other researchers are investigating prostate cancer that occurs after early exposures to estrogens and the role of endocrine disruptors in obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. A better understanding of the developmental origins of disease will aid in the development of better strategies for disease prevention.