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The University of Southampton

Southampton scientists push for more research into why the risk of disease starts in the womb

Published: 3 July 2008

Learning more about why the risk of developing chronic disease starts in the womb is essential to the future health of the world's population, argue Southampton scientists in a review published today in a prestigious international medical journal.

They say future research needs to focus on what causes this risk if these diseases are to be prevented.

The number of people around the world suffering from chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, asthma and some forms of cancer is increasing.

The review published in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that the cause of these diseases is not just governed by genes or lifestyle, but starts in human development.

The paper - by visiting University of Southampton academic Professor Peter Gluckman; University of Southampton academics, Professors Mark Hanson and Cyrus Cooper; and US academic Professor Kent Thornburg - details the risks which can develop when a fetus is trying to grow the body's tissues and organs ready to survive in the world.

"Because life is changing so fast in terms of diet, physical activity and social structure, a baby's development will increasingly be unable to keep up with the health risks of today's outside world," said Professor Hanson.

"This means that chronic diseases will become even more common and start earlier in our lives.

"We need to determine more about what causes this increased risk if we are to identify children in danger of developing these diseases and improve ways of preventing them," he added.

The review highlights the fact that making lifestyle changes as an adult will do little to allay these risks. But medical scientists are beginning to understand more about the way in which the environment in the womb and in infancy affects the way genes function.

This means that babies and children at risk will be able to be identified and ways to prevent them developing these diseases can be devised.

Notes for editors

  • The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship.

    This is one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine, and home to a range of world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

    We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

    As one of the UK's top ten research universities, we offer first-rate opportunities and facilities for study and research across a wide range of subjects in humanities, health, science and engineering.

    We have over 22,000 students, around 5,000 staff, and an annual turnover in the region of £325 million.

  • For further information

    Liz Gilbride, Communications, University of Southampton,
    Tel: 023 8059 2128, email:

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