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Rick van der Geest, Ronald J van der Sluis, Albert K Groen, Miranda Van Eck and Menno Hoekstra

Chronic glucocorticoid overexposure predisposes to the development of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in humans. Cholestatic liver disease is associated with increased plasma glucocorticoid levels. Here, we determined – in a preclinical setting – whether the chronic presence of cholestatic liver disease also induces a concomitant negative impact on atherosclerosis susceptibility. Hereto, regular chow diet-fed atherosclerosis-susceptible hypercholesterolemic apolipoprotein E (APOE)-knockout mice were treated with the bile duct toxicant alpha-naphthylisothiocyanate (ANIT) for 8 weeks. ANIT exposure induced the development of fibrotic cholestatic liver disease as evident from collagen deposits and compensatory bile duct hyperproliferation within the liver and the rise in plasma levels of bilirubin (+60%; P < 0.01) and bile acids (10-fold higher; P < 0.01). Adrenal weights (+22%; P < 0.01) and plasma corticosterone levels (+72%; P < 0.01) were increased in ANIT-treated mice. In contrast, atherosclerosis susceptibility was not increased in response to ANIT feeding, despite the concomitant increase in plasma free cholesterol (+30%; P < 0.01) and cholesteryl ester (+42%; P < 0.001) levels. The ANIT-induced hypercorticosteronemia coincided with marked immunosuppression as judged from the 50% reduction (P < 0.001) in circulating lymphocyte numbers. However, hepatic glucocorticoid signaling was not enhanced after ANIT treatment. It thus appears that the immunosuppressive effect of glucocorticoids is uncoupled from their metabolic effect under cholestatic disease conditions. In conclusion, we have shown that cholestatic liver disease-associated endogenous glucocorticoid overexposure does not increase atherosclerosis susceptibility in APOE-knockout mice. Our studies provide novel preclinical evidence for the observations that the hypercholesterolemia seen in cholestatic human subjects does not translate into a higher risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

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Alia H Sukkar, Aaron M Lett, Gary Frost and Edward S Chambers

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are metabolites produced from the fermentation of dietary fibre by the gut microbiota. High-fibre diets have been associated with lower weight gain and a number of reports have therefore investigated if these positive effects of a dietary fibre on body weight can be replicated through the direct administration of SCFAs. Many of these studies have reported that SCFAs can prevent or attenuate long-term body weight gain by increasing energy expenditure through increased lipid oxidation. The aim of the present review is to therefore evaluate the current evidence for an effect of SCFAs on whole-body energy expenditure and to assess the potential underlying mechanisms. The available data highlights that SCFAs can exert multiple effects at various organ and tissue sites that would cumulatively raise energy expenditure via a promotion of lipid oxidation. In conclusion, the present review proposes that dietary interventions and other therapies that augment gut-derived SCFAs and systemic availability may present an effective strategy to improve long-term energy balance and body weight management.

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Jacqueline M Wallace

The competition for nutrients that arises when pregnancy coincides with continuing or incomplete growth in young adolescent girls increases the risk of preterm delivery and low birthweight with negative after-effects for mother and child extending beyond the perinatal period. Sheep paradigms involving nutritional management of weight and adiposity in young, biologically immature adolescents have allowed the consequences of differential maternal growth status to be explored. Although nutrient reserves at conception play a modest role, it is the dietary manipulation of the maternal growth trajectory thereafter which has the most negative impact on pregnancy outcome. Overnourishing adolescents to promote rapid maternal growth is particularly detrimental as placental growth, uteroplacental blood flows and fetal nutrient delivery are perturbed leading to a high incidence of fetal growth restriction and premature delivery of low birthweight lambs, whereas in undernourished adolescents further maternal growth is prevented, and depletion of the maternal body results in a small reduction in birthweight independent of placental size. Maternal and placental endocrine systems are differentially altered in both paradigms with downstream effects on fetal endocrine systems, organ development and body composition. Approaches to reverse these effects have been explored, predominantly targeting placental growth or function. After birth, growth-restricted offspring born to overnourished adolescents and fed to appetite have an altered metabolic phenotype which persists into adulthood, whereas offspring of undernourished adolescents are largely unaffected. This body of work using ovine paradigms has public health implications for nutritional advice offered to young adolescents before and during pregnancy, and their offspring thereafter.

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Johan G Eriksson

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a major, rapidly increasing global public health challenge. The major risk factors for T2D include overweight and obesity, lifestyle-related factors and genetic factors. Early life exposures shape the developmental trajectories and alter susceptibility to T2D. Based on epidemiological studies it has been suggested that fetal undernutrition plays a role in the etiology of T2D. A low birth weight has been considered a proxy for fetal undernutrition. A meta-analysis reported that a 1 kg increase in birth weight is associated with a roughly 20% lower risk of T2D. Although fetal life is of major importance for future health, the period spanning the first 1000 days of life, is characterized by great plasticity and largely influencing later health. Different growth trajectories during this time period have also been associated with an increased risk of T2D. Studies assessing the association between age at BMI rebound in childhood and later risk for T2D have reported a fivefold difference in T2D according to age at BMI rebound. Developmental and epidemiological cohort studies focusing on T2D have major public health implications supporting a paradigm shift; a shift from focusing upon risk factor modification in adult life to adopting a life course perspective when studying T2D. This paradigm shift will not only help us in getting a better understanding of the pathophysiology underlying T2D, but it will also open new possibilities and opportunities in the prevention of T2D and related disorders.

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Stephen G Matthews and Patrick O McGowan

It has been approximately 30 years since the seminal discoveries of David Barker and his colleagues, and research is beginning to unravel the mechanisms that underlie developmental programming. The early environment of the embryo, foetus and newborn have been clearly linked to altered hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) function and related behaviours through the juvenile period and into adulthood. A number of recent studies have shown that these effects can pass across multiple generations. The HPA axis is highly responsive to the environment, impacts both central and peripheral systems and is critical to health in a wide variety of contexts. Mechanistic studies in animals are linking early exposures to adversity with changes in gene regulatory mechanisms, including modifications of DNA methylation and altered levels of miRNA. Similar associations are emerging from recent human studies. These findings suggest that epigenetic mechanisms represent a fundamental link between adverse early environments and developmental programming of later disease. The underlying biological mechanisms that connect the perinatal environment with modified long-term health outcomes represent an intensive area of research. Indeed, opportunities for early interventions must identify the relevant environmental factors and their molecular targets. This new knowledge will likely assist in the identification of individuals who are at risk of developing poor outcomes and for whom early intervention is most effective.

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Dipali Goyal, Sean W Limesand and Ravi Goyal

Maternal and paternal factors influence offspring development and program its genome for successful postnatal life. Based on the stressors during gestation, the pregnant female prepares the fetus for the outside environment. This preparation is achieved by changing the epigenome of the fetus and is referred to as ‘developmental programming’. For instance, nutritional insufficiency in utero will lead to programming events that prepare the fetus to cope up with nutrient scarcity following birth; however, offspring may not face nutrient scarcity following birth. This discrepancy between predicted and exposed postnatal environments are perceived as ‘stress’ by the offspring and may result in cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. Thus, this developmental programming may be both beneficial as well as harmful depending on the prenatal vs postnatal environment. Over the past three decades, accumulating evidence supports the hypothesis of Developmental Origin of Health and Disease (DOHaD) by the programming of the fetal phenotype without altering the genotype per se. These heritable modifications in gene expression occur through DNA methylation, histone modification and noncoding RNA-associated gene activation or silencing, and all are defined as epigenetic modifications. In the present review, we will summarize the evidence supporting epigenetic regulation as a significant component in DOHaD.

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Kok Lim Kua, Shanming Hu, Chunlin Wang, Jianrong Yao, Diana Dang, Alexander B Sawatzke, Jeffrey L Segar, Kai Wang and Andrew W Norris

Offspring exposed in utero to maternal diabetes exhibit long-lasting insulin resistance, though the initiating mechanisms have received minimal experimental attention. Herein, we show that rat fetuses develop insulin resistance after only 2-day continuous exposure to isolated hyperglycemia starting on gestational day 18. Hyperglycemia-induced reductions in insulin-induced AKT phosphorylation localized primarily to fetal skeletal muscle. The skeletal muscle of hyperglycemia-exposed fetuses also exhibited impaired in vivo glucose uptake. To address longer term impacts of this short hyperglycemic exposure, neonates were cross-fostered and examined at 21 days postnatal age. Offspring formerly exposed to 2 days late gestation hyperglycemia exhibited mild glucose intolerance with insulin signaling defects localized only to skeletal muscle. Fetal hyperglycemic exposure has downstream consequences which include hyperinsulinemia and relative uteroplacental insufficiency. To determine whether these accounted for induction of insulin resistance, we examined fetuses exposed to late gestational isolated hyperinsulinemia or uterine artery ligation. Importantly, 2 days of fetal hyperinsulinemia did not impair insulin signaling in murine fetal tissues and 21-day-old offspring exposed to fetal hyperinsulinemia had normal glucose tolerance. Similarly, fetal exposure to 2-day uteroplacental insufficiency did not perturb insulin-stimulated AKT phosphorylation in fetal rats. We conclude that fetal exposure to hyperglycemia acutely produces insulin resistance. As hyperinsulinemia and placental insufficiency have no such impact, this occurs likely via direct tissue effects of hyperglycemia. Furthermore, these findings show that skeletal muscle is uniquely susceptible to immediate and persistent insulin resistance induced by hyperglycemia.

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Rui Song, Xiang-Qun Hu and Lubo Zhang

Glucocorticoids are primary stress hormones and can improve neonatal survival when given to pregnant women threatened by preterm birth or to preterm infants. It has become increasingly apparent that glucocorticoids, primarily by interacting with glucocorticoid receptors, play a critical role in late gestational cardiac maturation. Altered glucocorticoid actions contribute to the development and progression of heart disease. The knowledge gained from studies in the mature heart or cardiac damage is insufficient but a necessary starting point for understanding cardiac programming including programming of the cardiac microenvironment by glucocorticoids in the fetal heart. This review aims to highlight the potential roles of glucocorticoids in programming of the cardiac microenvironment, especially the supporting cells including endothelial cells, immune cells and fibroblasts. The molecular mechanisms by which glucocorticoids regulate the various cellular and extracellular components and the clinical relevance of glucocorticoid functions in the heart are also discussed.

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Patrycja A Jazwiec and Deborah M Sloboda

It is well established that early life environmental signals, including nutrition, set the stage for long-term health and disease risk – effects that span multiple generations. This relationship begins early, in the periconceptional period and extends into embryonic, fetal and early infant phases of life. Now known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), this concept describes the adaptations that a developing organism makes in response to early life cues, resulting in adjustments in homeostatic systems that may prove maladaptive in postnatal life, leading to an increased risk of chronic disease and/or the inheritance of risk factors across generations. Reproductive maturation and function is similarly influenced by early life events. This should not be surprising, since primordial germ cells are established early in life and thus vulnerable to early life adversity. A multitude of ‘modifying’ cues inducing developmental adaptations have been identified that result in changes in reproductive development and impairments in reproductive function. Many types of nutritional challenges including caloric restriction, macronutrient excess and micronutrient insufficiencies have been shown to induce early life adaptations that produce long-term reproductive dysfunction. Many pathways have been suggested to underpin these associations, including epigenetic reprogramming of germ cells. While the mechanisms still remain to be fully investigated, it is clear that a lifecourse approach to understanding lifetime reproductive function is necessary. Furthermore, investigations of the impacts of early life adversity must be extended to include the paternal environment, especially in epidemiological and clinical studies of offspring reproductive function.

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Miguel A Velazquez, Tom P Fleming and Adam J Watkins

The concept emerging from Professor David Barker’s seminal research on the developmental origins of later-life disease has progressed in many directions since it was first published. One critical question being when during gestation might environment alter the developmental programme with such enduring consequences. Here, we review the growing consensus from clinical and animal research that the period around conception, embracing gamete maturation and early embryogenesis might be the most vulnerable period. We focus on four types of environmental exposure shown to modify periconceptional reproduction and offspring development and health: maternal overnutrition and obesity; maternal undernutrition; paternal diet and health; and assisted reproductive technology. These conditions may act through diverse epigenetic, cellular and physiological mechanisms to alter gene expression and cellular signalling and function in the conceptus affecting offspring growth and metabolism leading to increased risk for cardiometabolic and neurological disease in later life.