RESEARCH FOR A HEALTHY START TO LIFE
RESEARCH FOR A HEALTHY START TO LIFE
“Our mission is to understand how early life environments influence maternal health, fetal and infant development, and the risk for preterm birth and metabolic diseases throughout life. We focus on risk factors including early life nutrition, maternal stress and metabolic diseases.”
Optimal growth and development in the first 2000 days of life from conception contributes to the immediate survival of the newborn, establishes a strong immune system in the infant, supports brain development and function, and promotes a healthy metabolism. The environments you experience before you are born and when you are a child can shape your lifelong immune, metabolic and brain health.
Over 30% of Canadian women of reproductive age are overweight or obese.
Globally, 42 million children under the age of 5 are overweight and over 20% of children in Canada are overweight or obese.
Undernutrition remains a global burden. In Canada, 1 in 8 households experience food insecurity.
More than 1/3 of child deaths and 11% of total disease burden world wide are due to maternal and child undernutrition.
Maternal underweight, obesity and inflammatory conditions are also risk factors for preterm birth and low birthweight babies. Preterm birth affects 8-12% of all pregnencies.
Having low birthweight babies, early deliveries, and C-sections increases newborn care costs in Canada nearly 150 times.
In Canada, obesity and its comorbidities, including type 2 diabetes, result in a $4.6-7.1 billion annual finanacial burden to the Canadian economy.
Despite that these diseases are preventable, only a small proportion of Canada's health care spending is dedicated to prevention.
Research in the field of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) aims to understand how events that occur during development shape risk for diseases throughout the lifecourse.
A risk factor is any attribute or exposure that alters an individual’s chances of developing a disease. Some of the key risk factors for preterm birth, poor growth in early life, and metabolic diseases in later life include:
But not everyone who is exposed to these factors will be born too early, or grow poorly, or get diseases in later life. Interactions between the environment and the individual are critical in determining vulnerability to and development of disease.
Despite incredible advances in biomedical science, critical aspects of fetal and child development remain unclear.
In addition, the alarming increased incidence of neurologic, psychiatric, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) later in life raises questions about the origins of these disorders and the factors operating in early life that influence development in the womb and after birth.
Most NCDs such as obesity and diabetes are co-morbidities, which means they often occur together. This gives us an opportunity to find common pathways that are dysfunctional in these separate diseases, and develop interventions that may prevent more than one disease state.
To prevent suboptimal development in early life and poor health across the lifecourse, we need to understand how the health of the mother and malnutrition (in all its forms) set the developmental path of the child. We also need new and timely interventions to modify risk factors and optimise early environments.
Our research uses a systems approach to understand the pathways that lead to poor development and chronic disease risk. We investigate interactions between the environment, the host and its resident microbes, using animal models and human
cohorts. We aim to understand how suboptimal environments including poor nutrition, stress and metabolic diseases in mothers, shape her pregnancy and risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes including preterm birth. We also aim to understand
how these environments impact development of the placenta and fetus (particularly the gut and brain) and the growth of the infant postnatally, resetting the metabolic, endocrine and immune mechanisms that contribute to chronic disease.
Our research is dedicated to developing:
• novel ways to predict individuals at-risk for preterm birth, poor development and metabolic disease
• novel interventions to modify early developmental trajectories and reduce the incidence of non-communicable disease.
Maternal malnutrition (under- and overnutrition) can induce inflammation throughout the body. If these pro-inflammatory factors target intrauterine tissues, they may hinder the ability of these tissues to protect against microbes commonly associated with the onset of preterm labour and other adverse pregnancy outcomes. Pro-inflammatory factors may also interfere with the transport of nutrients and other molecules to the fetus that are critical for its development. We are investigating how maternal malnutrition and inflammatory states influence placental defence and transport. These studies are part of our larger goals to understand how early life environments influence risk for preterm birth and poor fetal development, especially the brain, and to develop dietary interventions to prevent these adverse outcomes.
Gut bacteria have been linked to human health and disease states including obesity, diabetes, and brain disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. We are investigating how common adverse conditions during pregnancy (maternal malnutrition, obesity and maternal prenatal stress) impact the integrity of the maternal and offspring intestinal barriers and the composition and function of their gut microbiomes. These studies are part of our larger goal to understand how the gut plays a role in coordinating exogenous signals from our environment (nutrition, stress), and endogenous signals in our bodies (pro-inflammatory and metabolic factors), to influence maternal health and increase vulnerability to metabolic and stress-associated diseases in offspring.
The increased rates of developmental delay, neurologic- and stress-related disorders in later life raise questions about their origins. Early life environments can influence brain development in utero and postnatally. Malnourished and preterm infants have impaired cognitive function and may have delayed gut maturation. We are investigating how maternal malnutrition impacts offspring brain development and function and how these changes may be linked to gut function. These studies are part of our larger goals to understand the mechanisms underlying suboptimal development in preterm and malnourished infants, and to improve brain development and function, potentially through interventions that target the gut.
Rates of HIV transmission from mother to child are decreasing. Whether there is a lasting impact of maternal HIV infection on the development of the HIV negative infant remains to be explored. Further, little is known about the impact of postnatal nutritional environments on the growth, development and health of the HIV exposed but uninfected infant. We are investigating how maternal HIV infection alters the composition of nutrients, immune molecules and bioactive metabolites in breast milk, and if maternal HIV status, breastfeeding practices, and factors present in breast milk are associated with infant growth and health. These studies are part of our larger goal to improve the lifelong immune and metabolic function in HIV exposed infants.
Our research spans disciplines from maternal health, fetal and infant development and nutrition, to biomedical sciences, molecular and systems biology, and microbiology, and to quantitative survey design and analysis, biostatistics, bioinformatics, and epidemiology. We integrate methods and techniques across these disciplines through our use of animal and cell culture models and human cohorts.
Due to our collaborative and cross-disciplinary approach, the Connor Lab seeks talented individuals with expertise in health and nutritional sciences, biomedical sciences, and data sciences.
We provide the mentorship, facilities, and collaborative and networking opportunities for success in each team member's research project, and tailored to their career plans.
Check out some of the exciting questions we are investigating. We encourage you to drop us a line if you want to join in. Send us a statement of your research interests and how you think our lab can help you achieve your professional goals, and a CV highlighting your relevant skills.
Dr. Kristin Connor is an Assistant Professor of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in the Department of Health Sciences at Carleton University. She is a molecular geneticist and nutritionist by first training (University of Guelph) and obtained her doctorate in reproductive and developmental physiology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, where she conducted her research internationally. Dr. Connor was a Research Fellow and Investigator at the Liggins Institute and the National Research Centre for Growth and Development in Auckland, New Zealand, and a senior Research Fellow at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where she currently conducts her human clinical research. Dr. Connor works with investigators nationally and her collaborations extend beyond Canada to teams in the United States, Brazil, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Dr. Connor has received various recognitions such as a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Fellowship, awards from international research societies including the International Society of Endocrinology and the International Society for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and was named a Venture Sinai Women’s Fellow. She also serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease.
Claudia’s research investigates the effects of malnutrition on maternal gut function in pregnancy. She is also interested in understanding how dietary interventions, such as pre- and probiotics, can improve maternal and offspring gut function, for long-term health benefits.
Elia’s research aims to understand how adverse conditions during pregnancy, including malnutrition and obesity, compromise placental function. Specifically, she is investigating the impact of these maternal conditions on placental transport and defence mechanisms.
Marina's research links poor maternal health with later developmental compromise in offspring. She is particularly interested in how early life events influence brain development and function. She is also investigating the role of postnatal nutrition, specifically components in breast milk, as a modifier of these relationships.
Sebastian’s research aims to understand how development and disease risk are shaped by the gut-brain axis. To do this he is investigating how maternal malnutrition permits, or prevents, the transfer of molecules via the gut to the developing offspring, and is assessing the impact of this on offspring brain development and function.
With Dr. Bloise and his team, we are investigating how maternal underweight and obesity impact gut and placental transport systems in an animal model, and impact intrauterine tissue function and defence and risk for preterm labour in a human cohort. We are grateful to have the latter work supported by an International Research Seed Grant through Carleton University’s Research and International office.
Through the Ontario Birth Study, we aim to understand the role of the microbiome in shaping metabolic health and disease trajectories in mothers and their offspring. To do this we have developed the MATaDOR (Microbial Approaches Targeting Diabetes and Obesity Risk) Early Life Study. We are grateful to have this work supported by the Garfield Westin Foundation and the Canadian Foundation for Women’s Health, and the McLaughlin Centre at the University of Toronto.
With clinicians in South Africa, we are investigating the impact of HIV exposure in utero on infant growth and cognitive development, and on development and function of the infant’s immune system. We are also examining how the early life nutritional environment may influence these outcomes.
We are collaborating with a team of investigators across Canada through the Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) cohort to understand the relationships between maternal weight before and during pregnancy, and heavy metal exposure, on infant cognitive outcomes. We are also interested in determining whether the early life nutritional environment modifies these relationships. We are grateful to have this work supported by the Faculty of Science at Carleton University.
To donate, you can contact Margaret Miller, Senior Development Officer in Carleton University's Advancement Office at: MargaretEMiller@cunet.carleton.ca or 613.520.2600 ext 1286.
Please specify that you want your donation to be directed to Dr. Connor's lab in the Department of Health Sciences.
Your donation will go to research on improving maternal health and development of children in early life. It will also go to research to prevent preterm birth and its adverse outcomes, and to prevent chronic diseases from childhood to adulthood.
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