Researchers at Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute receive C$3.7 million to study the impact of the Western diet on the health of the fetus

In pregnant women, the “Western diet” – an energy-dense diet that is high in calories from sugars and simple fats – may be responsible for negative changes in the metabolism of the placenta, setting their children and grandchildren up for a predisposition to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Charles McKenzie, PhD, and Timothy Regnault, PhD, researchers at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Lawson Health Research Institute (Lawson), have received the equivalent of a C$3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, as part of the Human Placenta Project, to develop imaging to study the impacts of maternal malnutrition on the placenta and health of the child.

The placenta is literally the life-support system for the fetus – providing nutrients, oxygen, hormones, immune defense and removing waste. Metabolic changes in the placenta impact the way it functions and potentially the metabolic disease risk of the child throughout its life.

McKenzie and Regnault are working to develop a safe process that will allow direct measurement of metabolic changes in the placenta during pregnancy, for the first time – hyperpolarized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technology that has been used to detect metabolic changes associated with the development of prostate cancer.

Scientists hyperpolarize pyruvate – a naturally occurring molecule used by all cellular life for energy – which boosts the signal of the pyruvate enough that pyruvate can be detected using MRI. The hyperpolarized pyruvate is injected into the maternal circulation and reaches the placenta. Scientists then scan the placenta with MRI, generating an image of the placenta. This image can be used to assess the placental metabolism and identify errors that may be used to predict disease that may occur during pregnancy and potentially impact the baby’s disease risk later in life.

“These images will allow us to see metabolism in the placenta and monitor changes in placental function,” said McKenzie, associate professor, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Canada Research Chair in Translational Magnetic Imaging Research and associate scientist at Lawson’s Children’s Health Research Institute. “With this technology, we hope to detect differences in placental metabolism between normal and abnormal pregnancies such as those that are caused by the mother’s lifelong consumption of a Western diet.”

“This project will allow us to investigate a safe method for measuring placental metabolism,” said Regnault, associate professor, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and scientist at Lawson’s Children’s Health Research Institute. “It is a non-invasive, real time measurement that will allow us to identify placental problems early in the pregnancy. With this technology, hopefully physicians will be able to recommend interventions or treatments to put the placenta, mother and child on a healthier path of development.”

Project 1U01HD087181-01 received support from the National Institutes of Health.


Tristan Joseph, Media Relations Officer, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, 519-661-2111 ext. 80387, c: 519-777-1573,

Julia Capaldi, Communications Consultant, Lawson Health Research Institute, 519-685-8500 ext. 75616. C: 519-200-1115,


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As the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, and working in partnership with Western University, Lawson Health Research Institute is committed to furthering scientific knowledge to advance health care around the world.