Warding off risk: Researcher explores conditions and environmental exposures that pose danger to mothers and babies
For Dr. Linda Dodds, finding risk factors that can lead to serious problems for mothers and babies is just the first step. She explores these factors in depth, laying the groundwork for changes in medical practice and public policy to reduce pregnancy- and birth-related risks.
For example, Linda and her team have found that exposure to chlorination by-products in municipal water supplies during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of stillbirth. This finding has prompted policy makers to change the guidelines related to these by-products in water supplies.
Linda is now co-investigator on a national study that’s assessing the impact on fetuses and newborns of a wide range of chemical exposures, including heavy metals, plasticizers, pesticides and tobacco by-products. Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Health Canada, the study will enroll 2,000 pregnant women across Canada.
“We are measuring levels of these chemicals in the mothers’ blood and urine, in early, mid and late pregnancy, as well as shortly after delivery,” notes Linda. “We will measure the same chemicals in the mothers’ breast milk and their babies’ meconium and cord blood.” At six months, the researchers will assess the infants for subtle effects of chemical exposures. By comparing these results with the chemical-exposure data, the researchers hope to identify which chemicals cause which effects.
Chemicals are not the only issue for Linda. Among other projects, she is working with autism research chair Dr. Susan Bryson to explore various prenatal factors that may trigger autism. “After accounting for factors that suggest increased genetic susceptibility, we found that high pre-pregnancy weight and high weight gain during pregnancy increase the risk of autism,” says Linda, adding that a low Apgar score at birth, being male, and being a first child are also associated with higher rates of autism.
In mothers, Linda has found that having gestational diabetes dramatically increases future risk of developing type 2 diabetes. She has also found that women who have less than five years between the delivery of their last child and a breast cancer diagnosis have a poorer prognosis than women with a longer interval between delivery and diagnosis – even after adjusting for age and other factors.
Linda has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2007 Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation Award of Excellence for Research in Population Health, the 2006 IWK Health Centre ‘Outstanding Research Contribution’ award and a CIHR New Investigator Award.
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