Most of us aspire to have better bodies – we dream of looking younger, more shapely, whatever…. but we don’t want to invest a lot of time or money to achieve this even if it is our #1 new year’s resolution. Not so for fashion models or Olympic sportspeople, who have to look or perform like superhumans. For this reason they are seldom out of the news, whether it’s the latest results of cosmetic surgery, a new fad diet or a revelation about performance-enhancing drugs. But are some of us just born to be superhuman or, if not, could any of us achieve this status if we wanted to? Is being superhuman all in our genes, or in our lifestyle and training, or could it even be laid down during our early development?
To grapple with this, researchers in the Institute of Developmental Sciences (IDS) at Southampton University (www.southampton.ac.uk/ids) recently hosted a “question-time” public debate on “Building Superhumans”. The panel was chaired by Professor Lord Robert Winston1, and included President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Professor Neena Modi2, the Olympic skeleton bobsleigh medalist Shelley Rudman3, the geneticist and science broadcaster Adam Rutherford4, and the holistic chef Jamie Raftery5 who brought examples of his healthy sweets to fuel the proceedings. The questions put to the panel all came from students from local schools in the audience, who had previously visited the IDS to witness its work first-hand. Needless to say, the panel could not answer all their questions, and had a range of opinions on subjects such as the extent to which genetics can explain our health and disease risk, or whether everyone should have the right to be a parent (watch the whole discussion here).
At the IDS we have just celebrated ten years of research into DEVELOPING HEALTHY LIVES. A young mother passes life and health (the glowing red heart-shaped object in our graphic) to the hand of a child and that child as it progresses into old age. All human life is there – the gift of health from one generation to the next and the endless possibilities which open up to a new generation if they can realise the potential given them by the gift of healthy development from the previous generation.
But what is healthy development, and what are the consequences if our development is not healthy? Over the last decade scientists working in the IDS have discovered the genetic processes underlying some rare diseases which can cause major health problems after birth, leading to new treatments for affected children. They are now a key part of the newly launched 100,000 genomes project, which aims to find the genetic causes of common diseases by studying the genetic sequence of a very large number of people.
Beyond genetics, IDS scientists have discovered powerful ‘epigenetic’ effects of the developmental environment, for example parents’ diet, on obesity and risk on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes in their children. Understanding these processes offers hope for prevention of childhood obesity. IDS scientists have also shown some of the complex processes by which the fetus detects aspects of its environment and changes its development accordingly. These processes can give useful protection if the environment after birth matches that of the parents, but if it does not then the risk of NCDs increases – something which is an increasing global health problem in low-middle income countries around the world.
The placenta plays an important part in these adaptive mechanisms, as it mediates the passage of nutrients and oxygen to the fetus. It used to be thought that the fetus and its placenta were fairly unresponsive to their environment and that development ran on a pre-set programme which was only affected under extreme circumstances. IDS scientists have certainly shown that this is not true. They have even shown that environmental influences start to affect development of the early embryo – at a time when a couple don’t yet know they have conceived a baby. So IDS research emphasises the importance of a healthy lifestyle for future parents.
With all these new discoveries, IDS scientists believe that we will be able to devise ways of promoting healthy human development. And of Building Superhumans? Sorry, no – dream on.
Professor Mark Hanson
Read more blogs from the Institute of Developmental Sciences on the Developing Healthy Lives blog.