In a laboratory at Seattle Children’s Hospital lie biological samples that could help researchers understand the origins of some of the world’s most persistent health problems—including diabetes, obesity, and hypertension—as well as help the littlest gain a hold on life.
Pregnancy and early childhood health haven’t been well studied, and the repository could change all that. Launched in January, it is part of the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth. Throughout the world, prematurity is the leading cause of death in children under age 5, and millions of stillbirths occur late in pregnancy or just minutes before birth. Here in the U.S., one in eight babies is born preterm (before 37 completed weeks of gestation).
Dr. Craig Rubens, the co-founder and executive director of GAPPS, says that the biobank repository—the first of its kind—has collected samples from 600 women and about 200 fathers. Half of those women have delivered their babies, so samples (including urine, amniotic fluid, and blood) have been collected from each trimester, as well as postpartum.
Rubens says that the biobank has collected more than 13,000 specimens and has 5,000 data points on each woman including a comprehensive history and information on her environmental exposures and diet throughout her pregnancy. "It’s really a rich library of data, with a large collection of samples from three sites around Washington State," says Rubens. "We’re beginning to encourage other places to start collecting in a standardized way, for cross-comparative studies." Although the repository started off as a way to understand premature birth, it can also tackle bigger questions.
Scientists know that a person’s health while in the womb has important implications for later health and chronic disease, but they still don’t entirely understand why those nine months shape the future. "There is more and more data suggesting that what happens during the time in the womb sets the stage for increased risk of many chronic illnesses like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. It could be that the way those genes are modified during pregnancy increases risk later," says Rubens, adding that anthropological studies of bones and teeth show evidence that chronic stress during pregnancy shortens a person’s lifespan—not just for the mother, but also for the baby.
The biological data is already being used to peer into some interesting mysteries. The first study to use samples from the repository determined a fetus’s near-complete genome using saliva from the father and a blood sample from the pregnant mother. Knowing a child’s genome pre-birth could allow parents to detect thousands of genetic diseases.
A resource like the repository can make it possible to learn much more about the nine months of pregnancy, which can impact the rest of people’s lives, says Rubens. "I think this will set the stage for how scientists can study these questions. And out of that we hope there will be new diagnostics and therapies for patients at risk and new data to shape how we guide, counsel, and take care of pregnant women."