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Growth regulation

Berthold Koletzko wins ERC Advanced Grant

Munich, 01/22/2013

Professor Berthold Koletzko has received one of the coveted Advanced Investigator Grants, worth approximately 2.5 million euros, awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). Koletzko, who heads the Division of Metabolism and Nutrition of the Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital at LMU, will use the money to carry out research into the effects of early nutrition on growth and later health outcomes. ERC Advanced Grants are intended for European researchers who have already made outstanding contributions to their fields, and are designed to give them the freedom to tackle particularly challenging and highly innovative projects.

Recent research has established that prenatal nutrition and diet in early childhood not only have a significant effect on growth rates in early life, but they also exert a lifelong influence on metabolic and endocrine regulation and associated health outcomes such as diabetes. Thus, studies have shown that rapid weight gain during the first two years of life is associated with a markedly increased risk of obesity and linked illnesses in later life. “Aspects of early nutrition and metabolism can program the course of the individual’s health throughout life,” says Koletzko. “Breastfeeding protects both against rapid weight gain in infancy and against the risk of obesity later on - but we do not yet understand the detailed mechanisms that mediates its protective effects.”

In order to promote positive health outcomes, it is vital to optimize growth rates during childhood by improving the composition of the child’s diet. However, little is known about the identity and modes of action of the key molecules that mediate the links between nutrition and growth rate. The aim of Koletzko’s ERC-funded project is to close this gap in our knowledge by analyzing a wide variety of metabolic factors and genetic modifications that may be involved in the process of metabolic programming.

Early nutrition and gene function
“One major aspect of our project will be to define how dietary and metabolic factors during pregnancy and early childhood influence the so-called epigenetic modification of genes, which can modulate their expression throughout life,” Koletzko explains. Epigenetic modification involves the targeted addition of methyl groups to regulatory segments of the genomic DNA, and generally serves to prevent the activation of the genes to which they are attached.

It has become clear that environmental and nutritional factors affect the process of epigenetic modification at certain sensitive phases during early development. These modifications can in turn alter organ function and influence one’s lifetime risk for various disease conditions. “We hope that our results will throw new light on key questions concerning the regulation of growth during early childhood, and help us to frame well-founded recommendations for early nutrition practice that will have the best possible impact on overall health,” says Koletzko.

Professor Berthold Koletzko studied Medicine at the University of Münster, where he also obtained his doctoral degree. His particular interest in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine led him to work in children’s hospitals in Detmold, South Africa and Tanzania, and at the Universities of Düsseldorf and Toronto. In 1989, he completed his Habilitation (PhD equivalent) in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Düsseldorf University. In 1992 he was appointed Extraordinary Professor of Pediatrics (with a focus on Metabolism and Nutrition) at LMU. Koletzko serves as coordinator for several international research consortia and is President-Elect of the European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. He has received many awards for his contributions to research, including the Freedom to Discover Award from the Bristol-Myers-Squibb Foundation in New York.

ERC Advanced Investigator Grants
ERC Advanced Investigator Grants are designed to support highly innovative research, which has the potential to extend significantly the frontiers of existing fields and pioneer the investigation of new areas. Projects are assessed solely on the basis of the scientific stature of their authors and the originality and quality of the proposed research program.

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