The link between smoking during pregnancy and the reduced health of offspring are well known, and past studies have suggested that exposure to smoke in the womb has different health consequences for boys and girls. A recent in depth study conducted by scientists from the University of Aberdeen, University of Glasgow, and the University of Edinburgh found that smoking while pregnant affects the livers of male and female fetuses differently.
There are many important proteins housed in the livers of fetuses and smoking while pregnant changes the amounts of these proteins that are present. The changes in protein levels that the researchers found indicate that the affected livers will not be able to function to their full capacity of making, secreting, and processing proteins. Although the levels of proteins were only slightly altered, even these small levels can lead to significant changes in organ function. These changes in the liver are sex-specific and lead to different manifestions later in life for males and females. Professor Paul Fowler, from the University of Aberdeen, explains “that the changes in the [proteins in] male fetuses are linked with liver cirrhosis while those in the female are linked with disorders of glucose metabolism.” Some of the other changes that researchers found are the same changes seen in cancers, such as childhood brain tumors, which matches existing evidence indicating the increased risk of certain cancers in people whose mothers smoked during their pregnancy.
The researchers say that the next step is to use this new information to identify biomarkers for these liver changes and use those to develop strategies to counteract, reduce and alleviate any health issues that these babies may acquire as they grow up.
Read the full report in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology here.