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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life SciencesHealth & Medicine

Epidemiology

The MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit represents a major investment in epidemiological research here at the University of Southampton.  Epidemiology is the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why. Our internationally renowned researchers are conducting epidemiological studies focusing on age-related musculoskeletal and metabolic disorders.

With an ageing population and rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, our health system is under immense pressure. New interventions are needed to help us make better lifestyle choices for the sake of our health and the health of future generations.

Previous research conducted in Southampton has demonstrated that during early development, our genes respond to a range of stimuli, which is likely to be an important contributor to our risk of disease as well as environmental exposures during infancy, childhood and adult life playing a role in our health in later years.

Now, our researchers across Life Sciences are working with partners at home and abroad on studies that link genetic, epigenetic, metabolomic and proteomic techniques to understand developmental influences on disease susceptibility, and their transmission across generations. We do this within six areas:

  • Musculoskeletal health in later life 
  • Determinants of musculoskeletal health in mid-lifecourse
  • Early development and risk of adult musculoskeletal disease
  • Developmental determinants of cardiometabolic health and human capital: transitioning populations
  • Cardiometabolic health and human capital: Integrative biology approaches to lifecourse health
  • Developmental determinants of cardiometabolic health: behavioural systems

In addition, we maintain and develop the long-term cohort studies assembled in Southampton as national and international resources to explore the mechanisms underlying the developmental origins of health and disease; these comprise the Hertfordshire Cohort Study, Southampton Women’s Survey, Helsinki Cohort Study, a panel of intervention studies such as MAVIDOS, and a series of cohort studies in India.

 

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Key words

Child, Diabetes, Epidemiology, Interdisciplinary, Lifecourse, Lifestyle, Musculoskeletal, Non-communicable disease, Obesity, Southampton

Please see a selection of postgraduate courses related to this subject area below. 

For the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Southampton, please visit our courses webpages https://www.southampton.ac.uk/courses.page

PhD Programme in Biomedical Research

We are one of the UK's leading centres for biomedical research and offer a range of postgraduate opportunities in both basic and clinical science.

DM Programme in Biomedical Research

A part-time Doctor of Medicine degree programme for students employed in a hospital with a clinical background and a medical qualification recognised by the UK General Medical Council.

MSc Genomic Medicine

Genomic technologies and information will transform practice across the clinical professions over the next decade.

MSc Global Health

An interdisciplinary degree programme designed to provide comprehensive training to understand, interpret and solve critical global health challenges.

MSc Demography

Through this masters degree, you can examine population and reproductive health as well as the population trends in both developed and developing countries.

MSc Gerontology

Gerontology is the study of ageing, the changes humans undergo as they age, and the impact of growing proportions of older people on social institutions, labour markets, welfare systems and families.

MSc Public Health

This programme will train you in all aspects of public health, with optional pathways specialising in nutrition, intelligence (working with information), global health and management.  

MSc in Statistics with Applications in Medicine

This one-year course provides sound Masters-level training in statistical methodology, with an emphasis on solving practical problems arising in the context of collecting and analysing medical data.

NiPPer Study

Increasing evidence shows a mother’s nutritional state as she enters pregnancy is important for the baby’s development and life-long health. For example, if the mother has high blood sugar levels in pregnancy it can predispose the baby to having increased body fat and diabetes in later life. The food women eat, even before they are pregnant, can also program the baby by switching genes on or off to influence the risk of childhood obesity and other disorders.

In an international study involving collaborators from Singapore and New Zealand, our researchers are trialing the use of a combination of nutrients and probiotics before and during pregnancy to improve the health of mothers and their babies. 

The NiPPeR study provides all participating women with a nutrient drink before conception. The drink includes the vitamins and mineral supplements already recommended for pregnancy. Half the women also get additional components in their drink, such as probiotics, as part of the trial. The women are then followed through pregnancy and their baby’s first year of life.

The study aims to evaluate the benefits of the nutrient drinks for the mother and baby. The team is studying the effects on maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar, vitamins and minerals in the mother, and the potential to promote a healthy pregnancy and healthy growth and development of the child.

Contact: Prof Keith Godfrey
https://www.nipperstudy.com/

Maternal health in Mumbai

Evidence shows that expectant mothers in India are often malnourished before and during pregnancy, which increases the likelihood of their children being malnourished and at risk of future diseases. India’s malnutrition challenges result not from a calorie intake, but from a carbohydrate-based diet low in protein, fat and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Working with the Centre for the Study of Social Change, our researchers have led the Mumbai Maternal Nutrition Project (also known as Project “SARAS”, meaning “excellent”), a randomised controlled trial of a food-based micronutrient-rich supplement for women living in slums in the city of Mumbai.

Participants were given a daily snack made from locally-produced green leafy vegetables, fruit and milk for at least three months before conception, in order to improve fetal development and long-term health outcomes.

It was important to engage the women early and help them understand the project’s intentions, so health workers visited women at home, held community meetings, performed street plays to demonstrate what they were trying to do. By these means they recruited 6,513 married non-pregnant women aged between 15 and -40 who were planning further children and delivery in Mumbai.

The trial showed that the supplement increased babies’ birth weight and reduced the incidence of low birth weight. This effect was greatest among mothers who had a body mass index above 18.5 kg/m2 before conception. The supplement also reduced the incidence of gestational diabetes (GDM), which is important because GDM has several adverse effects on the mother and baby, and increases the risk of being overweight or obese and later diabetes in the children.

The children are being followed up to investigate whether the supplement has long-term benefits on health outcomes. Further pre-conceptional intervention studies are ongoing in India as part of the MRC LEU’s research programme in low- and middle-income countries.

Contact: Prof Caroline Fall
https://www.mrc.soton.ac.uk/web2/cohorts/studies-in-india/the-mumbai-maternal-nutrition-project-saras-and-the-mumbai-maternal-nutrition-study-cohort-saras-kids/
 

UK Biobank

The UK’s population is living longer, and this presents new healthcare challenges. One in two women and one in five men over 50 years of age will suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis while rates of arthritis, cancer and heart disease are all increasing. This places a huge burden on our healthcare system and economy. 

Our medical researchers are playing a key role in an ambitious study that involves scanning the bones, hearts and brains of 100,000 middle-aged people, with a view to developing new ways of preventing and treating health conditions that tend to strike in mid to later life.

The £42 million UK Biobank Imaging Enhancement is the biggest scanning study ever undertaken, 10 times larger than any previous study and our epidemiology experts are leading the musculoskeletal component.

The scans obtained will comprise a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) assessment (yielding information on bone density, osteoarthritis and the amount of fat and muscle in the body), together with MRIs of the brain, heart and abdomen, and ultrasound examination of the major arteries of the neck. The combined information will help scientists understand why some people get particular diseases and others do not.

Our scientists are studying bone mass and determinants of osteoporosis in relation to other common chronic diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, hypertension, dementia, and sarcopenia (muscle loss). This unique research opportunity promises to deliver ground breaking scientific information, which ultimately should improve and save lives.

Contacts: Prof Nicholas Harvey, Prof Cyrus Cooper

https://www.ukbiobank.ac.uk/
 

MAVIDOS

Our researchers have conducted a unique study of vitamin D supplementation in pregnancy involving 1,000 women, which has shown benefits for children born in winter months.

Women who agreed to take part in MAVIDOS were randomised to either 1,000 units of vitamin D daily or to a matched placebo tablet from 14 weeks pregnancy until the birth of the baby. Bone mass in the baby was assessed using a bone density (DXA) scanner during the first two weeks after birth.

Analysis of all the babies born in the study showed there was no difference in bone mass between the babies born to mothers who took the supplement compared to those who took the placebo. However further analysis, looking at when the baby was born, showed that the babies born during the winter months (when background blood vitamin D levels tend to be lowest) to mothers who had taken the vitamin D supplement had greater bone mass than winter babies born to mothers who received the placebo.

The MAVIDOS trial has given the first evidence that supplementing mothers with vitamin D during pregnancy counteracts the seasonal drop in maternal vitamin D levels and may help to ensure good bone development in these winter births.

The trial was also highly effective at increasing vitamin D levels in the mother. More than 80 per cent of women who had received the supplement had satisfactory levels of vitamin D when measured in late pregnancy (the point at which most calcium bone mineral is transferred from mother to baby) compared with around 35 per cent in the placebo group.

Our results have already begun to inform national and international policy; they have been selected for plenary presentation at four international congresses and have been published in a major journal. Further analysis of the MAVIDOS Trial data has revealed that epigenetic changes in a key part of the vitamin D signaling pathway, induced by maternal vitamin D supplementation, may represent an important underlying mechanism. Furthermore, demonstration of the environmental and genetic determinants of achieved vitamin D level in late pregnancy, and of factors which influenced ability to comply with study medication, have further informed potential public health strategies aimed at improving pregnancy vitamin D status. Follow-up of the children at six to eight years of age is underway.

Contacts: Prof Cyrus Cooper, Prof Nicholas Harvey,

MAVIDOS website: https://www.mrc.soton.ac.uk/web2/cohorts/mavidos-maternal-vitamin-d-osteoporosis-study/ 
 

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