With a large subsidy of the European Union, Prof Dr Eline Slagboom of the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and scientific director of the Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Ageing, will study how circumstances during development and at a young age influence health at later age. Fourteen study groups in the EU and two companies participate in this collaborative research program called IDEAL (Integrated research on DEvelopmental determinant of Ageing and Longevity).
Children conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944-1945) often suffer from overweight and hypertension sixty years later. The group of Eline Slagboom has already demonstrated that being exposed to undernutrition in the womb influences the regulation and programming of genes. Bas Zwaan studies this phenomenon in animal models. Such ‘epigenetic’ marks in DNA can influence the functioning of genes and have an effect on health, life span and ageing. The scientists wish to establish what the effects are at a later age of, for instance, unhealthy food, but also of overweight and lack of activity in youth, of infections during pregnancy and of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). In addition, by studying this in animal models, for instance in fruit flies, nematodes and mice, the mechanisms can be uncovered and also experimentally manipulated. Because of the EU subsidy, this study ties top European research groups together that provide the necessary critical mass and expertise for success.
The scientists not only wish to demonstrate but also explain possible effects. Which genes and mechanisms connect early development, growth and health at a later age? And which role does the fast changing environment of mankind play in relation to the environment in which we evolved (evolutionary mismatch)? In addition, the researchers hope to develop tools and methods by which the effects of early circumstances can be monitored before health effects occur. Finally they will study how the interaction between epigenetic and genetic factors contribute to the large differences between individuals for health, ageing and life span.