Researcher Who Linked Fetal Nutrition to Adult Disease Honored By March of Dimes
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30th Anniversary of Agnes Higgins Award Recognizes David Barker, MD, PhD, FRS
DENVER, Nov. 8, 2010 — The world-renowned physician and professor who pioneered the theory linking fetal malnutrition to chronic adult disease will receive the March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award for outstanding achievement in the field of maternal-fetal nutrition.
Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes, recognized the 30th anniversary of the award and presented it to David Barker, MD, PhD, FRS, physician and professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, and professor in the Department of Medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University, during the American Public Health Association meeting held at the Colorado Convention Center today.
“Dr. Barker proved what Agnes Higgins believed — good nutrition before birth is critical for a healthy life,” said Dr. Howse. “The March of Dimes is honored to recognize Dr. Barker’s efforts toward our goal of giving more babies a healthy start in life.”
More than 20 years ago, Dr. Barker showed for the first time that people who had low birthweight are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease. In 1995, his theory was dubbed the “Barker Hypothesis” by the British Medical Journal and has become a guiding principle for prenatal care.
Dr. Barker’s work built on the foundation laid by Agnes Higgins of Canada’s Montreal Diet Dispensary, where Mrs. Higgins helped pregnant women give birth to healthy babies by focusing on the mother’s nutritional needs. Services provided at the Dispensary were the precursor of government nutrition programs for pregnant women in the United States, such as WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The March of Dimes established an award in her name in 1980.
“I am proud to receive this award in honor of Agnes Higgins. My research extends her work to improve the health and nutrition of babies in the womb,” said Dr. Barker. “It’s what a mother eats throughout her entire lifetime that is important; not just what she eats during pregnancy.
Dr. Barker began his work by exploring why historically poorer areas of England and Wales had disproportionately high death rates from coronary heart disease than other areas. By looking beyond conventional wisdom, which suggested that chronic disease is a function of adult lifestyle, Dr. Barker and his team of researchers discovered a causal relationship between a mother’s nutrition and the health of her children as adults. The human fetus responds to malnutrion by changing the structure and function of its body. These changes are permanent and lead to chronic disease, a process known as “the fetal programming of adult disease.”
For his work on fetal programming Dr. Barker was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He lectures on maternal-fetal nutrition around the world. His research is widely accepted and has paved the way for further research into the link between maternal-fetal nutrition and chronic diseases later in life such as diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. Dr. Barker received his doctorate from the University of Birmingham and his medical degree from the University of London. He is past president of the Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland. He received the Royal Society Wellcome Gold medal in 1994, the Prince Mahidol Award in 2000, the Danone International Nutrition Award in 2005 and the Ipsen Foundation Prize in 2007.
The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. For the latest resources and information, visit marchofdimes.com or nacersano.org.