Hull York Medical School research focuses on effect of maternal obesity on early stages of conception

11 June 2019

The effect of maternal obesity on the early stages of conception – which can potentially determine a child’s lifelong health – is the focus of research at Hull York Medical School, University of Hull

The effect of maternal obesity on the early stages of conception – which can potentially determine a child’s lifelong health – is the focus of research at Hull York Medical School, University of Hull.

A £150K investment, by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology will lead to advances in understanding how maternal obesity at the time of conception might alter the development of the early embryo in ways that can influence the outcome of the pregnancy and the lifelong health of the child.

According to the World Health Organisation (2018) overweight and obesity are defined as major global health risk factors. While links between obesity and diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer are well-established, it is increasingly apparent that being overweight or obese prior to and during pregnancy can have lasting effects on the unborn child.

The research is being led by Dr Roger Sturmey, Senior Lecturer in Reproductive Medicine at Hull York Medical School, and Dr Christine Leary, Honorary Lecturer at Hull York Medical School and Consultant Embryologist at the Hull IVF Unit, working in collaboration with Dr Adam Stevens and Professor Daniel Brison from the University of Manchester.

Professor Julie Jomeen, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, said: “In the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Hull and at Hull York Medical School, there is a strong research heritage in maternal wellbeing and reproduction, from mental health to the biochemical regulation of early embryo development. This funding to carry out this important work is testament to the research and innovation delivered by Roger and his team, the University, Hull York Medical School and Hull IVF Clinic. In a competitive process, with more than 70 submissions from across Europe for just one award, we were extremely pleased to be given the opportunity to advance knowledge in this particular area of research.

“Research grants like these are really important and I am so grateful to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology for the work they are funding in Hull.”


Professor Una Macleod, Dean of Hull York Medical School, said:

This research project will help us understand the impact of a mother being overweight or obese during the early stages of conception. By exploring the effect on the developing embryo, we can work towards diminishing the negative effect on the long-term health of the offspring. This will enable us to work towards giving the best advice to women on how their health can influence that of the unborn child, as they attempt to conceive.

Dr Roy Farquharson, European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology Chair, said:

“ESHRE is delighted to support this important area of research into preparation for motherhood. The overwhelming evidence from expert peer review to an enthusiastic grant response allowed this particular application to be number one. We hope that this project sheds light in understanding the implications of maternal obesity.”

Dr Sturmey said: “With the prevalence of obesity in women who are trying to conceive, advances in our knowledge of the effect of being overweight on the health of the embryo are urgently needed.

There is persuasive evidence that events prior to and during the first days of pregnancy may influence the lifelong health of the offspring and that the earliest stages of fertilisation and implantation are particularly sensitive to maternal obesity. 

“This grant from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology will enable us to investigate the type of modifications to the early stages of development which are influenced by maternal obesity during this crucial stage of conception in more detail than before. It will also pave the way to understand how to modify the environment in which these crucial stages of development occur during assisted conception (IVF) and potentially prevent some of the long-term effects on the embryo.”

Dr Sturmey’s earlier work with the Hull IVF clinic has shown that the embryos arising from eggs from women who are overweight and obese generate their cellular energy in ways that differ from women who are of a healthy weight.

Dr Sturmey said: “IVF is fundamentally a safe procedure, however, we need to understand in more detail what the changes in the embryo arising from maternal obesity mean for the long term health of the child and whether they can be prevented by ‘guiding’ the biochemistry of the embryo toward a healthy direction.”  

The research team will carry out a detailed comparison of the way that early embryos create the energy that they need to fuel development, and how these processes differ between women who are overweight and those of a healthy weight.

Using state of the art techniques the research will look at how the pattern of genes expressed by the embryos is influenced by the energy-generating pathways and then attempt to restore the optimum profiles in those embryos from women who are overweight. This will be achieved using a suite of non-invasive tests of embryo biochemistry, as well as observing how the embryos divide. These findings will be aligned to cutting edge analyses of the network of genes expressed to understand precisely how metabolic changes in these first few days during and after conception can influence the lifelong health of the child. 

The project will take place over a period of 2 years in the new Allam Medical Building, at the heart of the University’s £28 million health campus which is home to world-leading research and innovative teaching.

This grant will build on other significant research projects that are already ongoing at the University, including the development of a new model system of the Fallopian Tube to understand how the environment normally around the embryo can potentially alter the health of the offspring.

The collaboration will also build on expertise in the Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre at the University of Manchester on the genetic regulation of early embryo development and child growth. 

Dr Adam Stevens, Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, said: “I believe that the application of cutting edge systems biology approaches is essential to the understanding of complex gene networks such as we see in early growth.  I am delighted to be continuing my collaborations with Dr Sturmey in this area.”