Finding Obesity Risk in Babies

Baby (Sanyu)The track record for preventing obesity in childhood is not especially impressive. Could it improve with objective measures to identify babies most at risk for obesity as they grow up? A new study of data from the INSIGHT program has found a new polygenic risk score that might help with this.

There’s just one little problem. Knowing who’s at risk might be the easy part. The hard part is finding the right tools to have a meaningful, positive effect.

A Simpler Genetic Risk Score

Researchers at Penn State, led by Sarah Craig, collected genetic data from 226 children in the INSIGHT study. With this genetic data and complimentary data on the growth of these babies from birth to three years, they were able to create two different polygenic risk scores for obesity.

Of course, polygenic risk scores for obesity are nothing new. But what stands out about these risk scores is their simplicity. Senior author Kateryna Makova explains:

“Previous attempts to produce polygenic risk scores for obesity were developed using genetic information from adults or older children. They include anywhere from a hundred to two million SNPs. Such high numbers are challenging and potentially expensive to consistently reproduce, especially in a clinical setting. We produced two score options with far fewer SNPs – one with 24 and one with five – that nonetheless can provide valuable information to researchers and clinicians.”

The researchers showed that both of these scores could predict obesity risk in older children, as well as adults.

Identifying Risk Is Not Enough

This is valuable research. But by itself, it won’t improve the lives of babies who inherit a high risk of obesity. What it can do is help other researchers target their efforts to provide better care for babies born with a high genetic risk for severe obesity.

Right now, we’re only scratching the surface. The INSIGHT study is one of a very few that have shown an effect on obesity in infants. Even so, in that RCT, the effect was modest. We can surely do better, but it will take a more robust set of tools for preventing obesity in these children.

Click here for the study by Craig et al and here for further perspective. For the INSIGHT study publication in JAMA, click here. And finally, for a systematic review of interventions in the first thousand days of life, click here.

Baby, painting by Sanyu / WikiArt

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January 17, 2022