Foetal lesson

Published: Monday 31 August 2009

Protein helps develop foetal tissue (Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT) Mother's low-protein diet makes child vulnerable

unbalanced diet during pregnancy affects the health of the developing foetus. But it can be more serious. A recent research suggests low protein intake by a pregnant woman can damage foetal cells. So much so that it can lead to diseases like diabetes later.

Till now exposure to heat, certain chemicals or harmful radiations like ultraviolet rays were known to damage body cells by triggering an increase in free radicals. The radicals are high-energy particles that destroy cell structures. Maternal low-protein diet results in a similar increase in free radicals in the foetus, said scientists from Universite catholique de Louvain, Belgium. Cell has its own defence against free radicals; it releases enzymes like glutathione peroxidase (gpx) to render them inactive. But pancreatic cells, which secrete diabetes-regulating insulin, have low levels of gpx enzyme. So when a low-protein diet leads to an increase in free radicals in pancreatic cells, they fail to defend themselves. These damaged pancreatic cells manifest as diabetes later in life.

Lead researcher Nicholas Theys and his team studied the effect on low-protein diet on pregnant rats. They fed a diet with 20 per cent protein to one group and a diet with 8 per cent protein to the other. They studied pancreatic and liver cells of the rats at different phases--from gestation till they were three months old. When compared, gpx level remained consistently low in low protein-fed rats; the size of their pancreas had reduced and insulin levels were lower, the scientists said in the July issue of PloS One.

They also observed the rats had poor defence mechanism even after they grew up. The researchers attribute this to the damage to mitochondria, which provides energy to the cell. They plan to study the role of malnutrition on the function of mitochondria.

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