By Holly Menino
EUGENE, Ore. — It’s well known that a healthy mom helps make a healthy baby. What if a pregnant woman’s diet could protect her child throughout its life? Even ward off certain cancers? Cutting-edge research at Oregon State University shows that could be a possibility.
“We’ve known that for many many years the fetus is sensitive to the maternal environment,” said Dr. David Williams a Scientist at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.
For the past eight years, Williams has studied how diet can prevent cancer. Now he’s looking at how a pregnant woman’s diet can affect her unborn child. According to Williams, during pregnancy, women are exposed to at least 50 known chemicals that can cross the placenta and harm the fetus; some even giving them cancer later in life.
“Lymphomas and leukemias are the most common childhood cancer and cancer is the number one cause of death in children other than accidents,” said Williams.
Williams is experimenting to see whether a mother’s diet could not only protect her baby in utero, but also in childhood, and maybe even into adulthood. With a mouse model, Williams and his team exposed pregnant mice to known-carcinogens; chemicals floating around in the air we breathe everyday, such as, automobile exhaust, forest fires and cigarette smoke.
“When they get to be about young adult stage which is in a mouse 3 to 6 months of age they started to get very sick from a T-Cell Lymphoma,” said Williams.
Through research Williams knew of the super-food, cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage, which all contain a compound called Indole-3-Carbonale.
“We found that if we supplemented the mother with this compound in her diet it significantly protected the fetus from getting that T-Cell Lymphoma when they were young adults,” said Williams.
Not only did it protect young mice, but the protection carried over into adulthood.
“What was surprising even more to me was that this protection lasted well into what amounts to middle age for a mouse,” said Williams.
Williams’ research shows, as mothers, we might be able to protect our children from certain cancers just by eating our veggies. But could it go one step further? Could what we eat in pregnancy actually protect our grandchildren and great grandchildren? Williams says it’s a possibility.
“It has the potential of not just enhancing the health of the first generation, but generations to come if it’s an epigenetic mechanism,” said Williams.
The next step for Williams is transitioning his work to humans. He plans to start the first human clinical trials this year and transition to pregnant women within 3 to 5 years, although he will not be exposing them to carcinogens.
“If we make even a small difference in those cancer rates in people by supplementing their mother’s diet with these protective chemicals. We just thought that would be huge,” said Williams.
When is the critical time for pregnant women to consume cruciferous vegetables or the chemical Indole-3-Carbonal? Is it better to eat the whole food or is taking a supplement sufficient? Williams and his team are now pursuing these questions and many others.