100 Ways of Using Data to Make Lives Better

Looking for a Link Between Fetal Growth and Common Medical Conditions

Published on: 1st June 2017

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Public Health
Case Study 32

Project Lead: Dr Steve Turner, University of Aberdeen

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen are aiming to find out whether the smallest fetuses are at the highest risk of developing medical conditions such as asthma, epilepsy and diabetes

The Challenge

Babies with a low birth weight are at a higher risk for many common conditions in adulthood including asthma, heart attacks and type II diabetes. This link between birth weight and adult disease suggests that a predisposition to these diseases is programmed during pregnancy, but when? Once we understand the fetal origins of disease we may be able to prevent them. The challenge is working out when (before birth) small size becomes linked to common healthcare conditions.

The size of unborn babies can be measured relatively accurately whilst still inside their mothers using ultrasound. One solution to the challenge would be to start making measurements of unborn babies now and then wait 10, 20 or 30 years to see if we can link the measurements to the development of asthma and diabetes. A second solution is to use routinely acquired data and get the answer in a couple of years from the start of the project to the end. The research team from the University of Aberdeen chose the second solution.

The Research

During pregnancy most women undergo routine ultrasound scans at about 10 and 20 weeks. The first scan tells the mother and the midwife when the baby is expected and the second scan spots potential problems with the baby’s growth or development.

The researchers are currently linking fetal ultrasound scan data collected in Aberdeen from 1985 through to 2015 to medicines prescribed by family doctors between 2009 to 2015. The prescription information allows them to identify children and young people with common conditions such as asthma, epilepsy, diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They will also use asthma prescriptions to identify children and young people with more troublesome asthma and answer the question “do the smallest fetuses develop the most troublesome asthma?”

We know that whilst growth before birth is important to the development of conditions such as asthma, we also know that growth in the preschool years is important. The researchers are therefore adding routinely collected weight at five years of age to the other data.

The Results

This is a work in progress. The researchers anticipate having data of around 20,000 people between the ages of 1 to 30. This means they’ll have a large enough number of individuals to look at the influence of age on any relationship between fetal size and the conditions detected through doctor prescriptions.

The Impact

It is too early to say (or even speculate) what the impact of this work will be. Keep an eye on our website where we’ll write about the findings once they have been published.

Enquiries to Sabine Kurz, Communications Assistant, The Farr Institute of Health Informatics Research, sabine.kurz@ed.ac.uk

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