Weight of it all

Sifting through more than 500,000 genetic profiles would seem a laborious task for many, but not UQ Diamantina Institute researcher and statistician Dr Nicole Warrington.

Using statistical software to crunch the numbers, Dr Warrington is attempting to explain why babies with a lower birth weight are more likely to develop diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

“It can be hard for women to navigate competing information about what they should and shouldn’t do during pregnancy,” Dr Warrington explains.

“I hope my research will alleviate some of their anxieties by creating clear, evidence-based guidelines that tell mothers how their actions can impact their babies.” 

By focusing her attention on regions of the genome that are associated with birthweight, Dr Warrington came across a surprising finding.

“Previous research has primarily focused on whether the mother’s intrauterine environment, including the nutrition she provides, programs her baby to develop cardiometabolic diseases later in life.

“Our research into low blood pressure found no evidence of this type of intrauterine programming, instead it appeared to be a genetic relationship.”

Dr Warrington and her team conducted one of the largest ever genome-wide association studies, published earlier this year, and identified nearly 200 regions of the genome associated with birth weight.

Busting previous beliefs on the intrauterine environment was an exciting moment for the early career researcher, whose natural aptitude for numbers and desire to make mathematics meaningful led to her unique path of research.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can increase the number of women studying and researching in these mathematic and statistical fields.

“Encouraging girls to pursue these subjects in school and in undergraduate degrees can help them find their own passion for numbers and solutions to real-world problems.”

This particular problem might be too big for Dr Warrington to solve on her own, but it won’t stop her trying to crack the code for younger generations.

Portrait of Dr Nicole Warrington

Dr Nicole Warrington

Dr Nicole Warrington

This story is featured in the Summer 2019 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.