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Harnessing genetics to predict baby size during pregnancy

Project summary

Diabetes puts women at greater risk of having a large baby, which can lead to complications during childbirth. Dr Rachel Freathy’s PhD student will build a risk calculator that combines information from genes and other factors linked to birth weight, to predict the baby’s size. Being able to spot who is most at risk of having a larger baby could transform the care women with diabetes receive during pregnancy.

Background to research

Women with diabetes are more at risk of having a larger baby than usual. This can lead to complications during birth and the baby might need extra medical care early in life. We know that a mother’s blood sugar levels during pregnancy can affect the baby’s growth, but there are many other factors involved.

This means that the risk of having a large baby varies a lot among different pregnant women with diabetes. But at the moment, we don’t have an accurate way of spotting who is most at risk or why. Knowing this as early as possible is important for the health of mum and baby, as it will help doctors to provide the right care to reduce the risk of complications during birth and beyond.

Research aims

Dr Freathy and her PhD student want to improve our understanding of factors affecting the growth of a baby, including the mother’s and baby’s genes, the mother’s age or blood pressure and the height of the parents.

At the moment it’s not possible to take a DNA sample directly from a baby in the womb. So the project will also investigate if genetic material, that’s released by the placenta into the mother’s blood during pregnancy, can be used to test babies genes related to birth weight.

Dr Freathy’s student will then use data from the largest world-leading pregnancy studies to build a ‘calculator’ to predict birth weight. They’ll look at how useful different factors are in predicting the baby’s size and test which combinations of factors can improve the prediction. If the calculator performs well, they plan to develop it into a web-based tool that doctors can use to identify women with diabetes most likely to have a large baby.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Building a way to accurately predict who is most likely to have a large baby could transform care for women with diabetes in pregnancy. It would mean those at highest risk could be offered more intensive care and support, and could ultimately help them to have safer pregnancies. It could also mean pregnant women with a low risk may not need to have check-ups as frequently and could be reassured about their risk of complications.

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