Paternal obesity may lead to health risks of offspring, study says

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 11:50 a.m. MST

The obesity of a father may lend itself to an unhealthy life for his children and can give them greater chances of developing certain types of cancer, according to a study from Duke University Medical Center, which appeared in the journal BMC Medicine.

"The study … is the first in humans to show that paternal obesity may alter a genetic mechanism in the next generation, suggesting that a father's lifestyle factors may be transmitted to his children," according to the Duke news release on the study.

Historically, research on the health of newborns has generally emphasized the study of pregnant women, finding that there are numerous factors during the pregnancy that can affect the health outcomes and risk of chronic diseases for newborns, said the release.

However, there has been much less research to see what factors may affect children from the paternal side.

"Understanding the risks of the current Western lifestyle on future generations is important," said Adelheid Soubry, a postdoctoral associate at Duke Cancer Institute and the study's lead author. "The aim of this study was to determine potential associations between obesity in parents prior to conception and epigenetic profiles in offspring, particularly at certain gene regulatory regions."

The research team was looking to find connections between obesity of parents and changes in DNA methylation, which "regulates the activity of certain genes, which can reflect a higher risk for some diseases" among offspring, according to a Daily News & Analysis article on the study.

"Our genes are able to adapt to our environment. However, we adjust in a way that may be problematic later," said Cathrine Hoyo, a cancer epidemiologist at Duke Medicine and the study's senior author. "It is not a change in the sequence of the DNA itself, but how genes are expressed. Some genes may get 'shut off' as a result of environmental trauma."

Because of the difference between DNA methylation in offspring of obese fathers, compared to those who were not obese, the data suggested that paternal obesity may increase risk for children to develop certain cancers — including colorectal and ovarian cancers, according to the study.

Future studies may be able to look at whether there are certain interventions that can be used before or after conception to keep this paternal factor from affecting offspring, said the release.

"This study is an important start in looking at the effects of environmental exposure on children, not only through the mother but also through the father," Soubry said in the release.

"Although we cannot define at this point which obesity-related factor may cause an epigenetic effect, we measured in this study a significant association between paternal obesity and aberrant methylation profiles in the offspring."

Mandy Morgan is an intern for the Deseret News, reporting on issues surrounding both family and values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying journalism and political science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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