My research is directed at preventing obesity, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and type 2 diabetes through new interventions addressing their origins during early development. This internationally recognised research programme in maternal nutrition, epigenetics and human development underpins government policy (Foresight Tackling Obesities 2007; SACN Early Nutrition & Chronic Disease 2010; CMO Annual Report, Our Children Deserve Better 2013) and NICE guidance (Maternal & Child Nutrition 2008; Pregnancy Weight Management 2010). It has led to a lifecourse approach to prevention of non-communicable diseases, now recognised by the World Bank, WHO (2008-13 Global Strategy for Prevention & Control of NCDs; UN General Assembly resolution 64/52, 2010; WHO Ending Childhood Obesity Commission 2014) and other NGOs.
As Deputy Director of the Southampton NIHR Nutrition Biomedical Research Unit awarded in 2008, I subsequently played a lead role in the 2012 award of the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre in Nutrition. As BRC Director of Operations I am developing evidence based measures to improve health by optimising maternal and child nutrition.
I am a PI/co-applicant on >£85M awards, including major international, industry, EU and Food Standards Agency awards, together with BHF, NIHR and MRC programme grants (2009-14). I have published 178 papers and 41 reviews (H-index 51), and supervised 5 PhD and 1 DM students. In collaborations with Auckland & Singapore, I am devising novel perinatal epigenetic markers for obesity and metabolic disease.
Internationally, I have been expert adviser to the WHO International Fetal & Newborn Growth Standard Panel (2007-2010), panel co-chair/expert advisor $3bn US National Children's Study on feto-maternal health (2007) and co-wrote the Shanghai Declaration on Early Life Opportunities for Addressing Non-communicable Diseases (2011). I have developed an international reputation as an authority on maternal nutrition and fetal development, resulting in a Visiting Professorship at the National University of Singapore (2011) and am an Executive Board member for the SD$25m Singapore MRC Flagship Programme "Developmental pathways to metabolic disease" (2013-).
Public engagement is a major focus of my activities; in 2008 I initiated LifeLab, an educational initiative in collaboration with the University’s School of Education & Science Learning Centre SE to increase health literacy and change diet/lifestyle in teenagers. LifeLab is a unique concept globally and was a finalist in the 2012 BBSRC Social Innovator of the Year competition. £1.75m purpose-built premises were completed in 2013, opened by the Countess of Wessex (2014). Pilot studies suggest high impact; a British Heart Foundation project grant will evaluate this further in ~4000 students (2014).
As Trustee and Treasurer of the International Learned Society for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) I have contributed to achievement of UK charitable status (2006), sustained growth in the society's membership (rising from 80 to over 550), launch of a new journal (J DOHaD, 2009), highly successful 5th & 6th DOHaD World Congresses (Organising Committee Member/session convener, 2007-13) and incorporation of a lifecourse perspective into WHO, UN and World Bank policy. I am involved in many media activities (including BBC Horizon, 2013) and public talks (e.g. Associate Parliamentary Food & Health Forum 2012 and 2013). In addition I have given 100 invited lectures to national and international conferences.
The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease
Our work has established that people who were small at birth and had poor growth in infancy have an increased risk of adult coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, particularly if this is followed by increased childhood weight gain. Impaired early growth is also linked with later osteoporosis and obstructive airways disease including asthma. The relations between smaller infant size and ill-health in adulthood extend across the normal range of infant size in a graded manner. The associations do not simply reflect genetic influences, rather our findings show that interactions between the early life environment and genetic influences determine disease susceptibility.
The observations have led to the hypothesis that cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and obstructive airways disease originate through developmental plastic responses made by the fetus and infant as part of a prediction of the subsequent environment to which it anticipates that it will be exposed. Critical periods in development result in irreversible changes; if the environment in childhood and adult life differs from that predicted during fetal life and infancy, the developmental responses may increase the risk of adult disease. Evolutionary considerations and experimental findings strongly support the existence of major developmental effects on health and disease in adulthood.
Early Life Influences, Epigenetics and Health in Later Life
Our research has linked raised adult blood pressure and altered glucose-insulin metabolism and stress responsiveness to specific maternal influences, notably i) the mothers own birthweight, ii) maternal body composition, including fat and lean mass,and pregnancy weight gain, iii) dietary macro- and micronutrient balance and status, iv) maternal endocrine status. Mechanisms through which these maternal influences alter fetal development include a) a mis-match between fetal nutrient demands and the materno-placental capacity to meet this demand, b) alterations in the fetal endocrine milieu, c) changes in placental vascular impedance, which impact on fetal cardiovascular loading, and d) epigenetic processes, including altered DNA methylation, which change gene expression.
There is evidence that the consequences of developmental plastic responses can be modified during infancy, and that their effects can be amplified by high childhood weight gain and perhaps by low levels of habitual physical activity, increasing vulnerability to adverse lifestyle influences during adulthood. Within the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, my ongoing research in the Southampton Women's Survey (SWS) is characterising these effects and integrating this understanding with parent/offspring genetic information, including epigenetic modification of fetal and placental genes. In the SWS, 12,583 women aged 20 to 34 years have been characterised before pregnancy and detailed pre- and postnatal measurements have been made on the 3,160 women who subsequently become pregnant and delivered in Southampton.
The SWS is the only population-based study in the developed world of a large and representative group of women who were characterised before pregnancy and had longitudinal measurements of fetal growth rates during pregnancy. Support for assessments of the offspring’s nutrition and body composition from birth to age 4 has come from the Arthritis Research Campaign, MRC and the Food Standards Agency. The Food Standards Agency and British Lung Foundation have funded respiratory assessment at age 6, and a programme grant from the British Heart Foundation is funding detailed measurement of cardiovascular structure and function at age 8. Epidemiological observations are combined with detailed clinical studies of mechanisms through research with the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in Southampton. Our epigenetic studies are supported through EpiGen, a consortium founded in 2006 between MRC Technology, the University of Southampton, the University of Auckland, and AgResearch New Zealand, joined in 2009 by the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (an A*STAR Research Institute) and the National University of Singapore. For more information on Professor Godfrey’s research please visit http://www.sotonbru.org.uk/nutrition and www.mrc.soton.ac.uk.
Human Development and Health Academic Units
Affiliate academic unit(s)
Human development and physiology Research group
Professor Keith Godfrey
MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit
(University of Southampton)
Southampton General Hospital, Mailpoint 95
Southampton SO16 6YD
tel: +44 (0)23 80777624
fax: +44 (0)23 80704021
Room Number:SGH/MRC LEU/MP95