The BiSC team: critical spirit and commitment to good science

Have you ever wondered how our health is shaped or conditioned even before we are born? This question lies at the heart of a fascinating field of research known as the Developmental origins of health and disease. In fact, the BiSC project is part of this field as it wants to explore how our health trajectories are influenced by prenatal and early life factors.

In recent years, however, some scientists in the field, such as our collaborator Gemma Sharp from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, have pointed out that this field has traditionally focused heavily and almost exclusively in maternal exposures during pregnancy. This means that it has been assumed that the mother’s health and lifestyle during pregnancy are the most crucial determinants of her child’s future health. It seems that this perspective could be disproportionate and lead to misleading or biased conclusions, ignoring other equally or more important factors, such as paternal influences or postnatal factors (which occur during the first months or years of life).

In addition, the way in which the results of this type of study are communicated through scientific articles or through the most informative media often presents pregnant mothers as individually responsible for a series of specific damages for future generations. This narrative ignores the social and economic systems that influence health behaviors and can have coercive and autonomy-limiting effects for women. The patriarchal system already makes motherhood live from guilt and discomfort and science should not feed this but facilitate the understanding of the processes that surround it.

Finally, it must also be taken into account that concerns for the fetus can often be placed above those of the mother. For example, continuous monitoring of a mother’s weight gain during pregnancy, motivated by the desire to prevent obesity in the child, can cause unnecessary anxiety for the mother (who in turn is also detrimental to its development). The idea of maternal weight-gain during pregnancy as a causal effect on a child’s risk of obesity appears to be limited, and the practice of ongoing monitoring may not be evidence-based.

So what’s the way forward?

At BiSC, in order to incorporate this more balanced approach, we collaborate with social scientists (for example, we had sociologist Sophia Rossman from the University of Munich visit the project for a few months); we take into account potential publication biases; when communicating results we avoid the
criminalization of maternal habits and we will advocate for structural changes in public health of political and economic origin, asking for more nuanced, effective and equitable health interventions; and, above all, we are committed to the collection of better quality data on other factors that influence the health of the offspring (paternal samples, questionnaires to other members of the family unit, monitoring of environmental factors during the first years of life, collection of postnatal samples, etc). Thus, we will use methodology to examine the influence of maternal factors during pregnancy on the health of the child, but also of these other factors that may be equally or more relevant.

The researchers of the project are convinced that this will allow us to obtain a more complete and accurate understanding of the complex interaction of the factors that shape our health and the risk of disease from our earliest stages of development.


Reference: Sharp GC, Schellhas L, Richardson SS, Lawlor DA. (2019) Time to cut the cord: recognizing and addressing the imbalance of DOHaD research towards the study of maternal pregnancy exposures. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease. DOI: 10 1017/ . S2040174419000072



The text has been written by Marta Cosin, a researcher of the BiSC project.