Each year the ERC gives funding to researchers from all over Europe. The so-called ERC Starting Grants of EUR 1.5 million are given to young researchers, and it is a grant of this kind that Marie Pedersen from the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen has just been informed that she will be receiving.
Marie Pedersen has trained as a biologist and previously done research into various environmental effects on the health due to exposure early in life, among other things during the development of the foetus. The grant she has just received will be spent on researching such exposure. Her research project will be the first ever to study connections between foetal exposure to acrylamide and related reactive substances formed during heating of certain foods and a series of effects on the health of children and young adults.
'I am very happy to receive this grant from the European Research Foundation, because it enables us to better determine whether acrylamide from the diet contributes to unwanted health effects. So far we have mainly seen studies among adults based on questionnaire surveys surrounded by some uncertainty and research into the carcinogenic effects of acrylamide, but its other effects on humans have not been sufficiently clarified. No research has been done into late effects caused by exposure during the first, vulnerable stage of life characterised by the development of the organs and functions of the body', says Associate Professor Marie Pedersen.
We mainly ingest acrylamide via the diet, where it is formed by different sugars and asparagine during heating of a number of everyday foods like crisps, chips, toast, crispbread, coffee, bear and muesli. The idea for the new research project comes from Marie Pedersen's previous studies, where she found a connection between the concentration of acrylamide-haemoglobin adducts in blood collected from the umbilical cord and the birth weight and head size of new-born babies. The higher the level of acrylamide, the lower the birthweight and the smaller the head size.
Now she will expand her research into acrylamide and examine a number of parameters, also at a far later stage in life than birth. She will estimate the exposure to acrylamide via advanced biomarker analyses of frozen blood samples from around 2,000 mother-child pairs in existing Danish birth cohort studies and via questionnaire data.
Then, with a view to establishing a long-term perspective on the possible harmful effects of acrylamide, she will examine connections between the estimated acrylamide consumption and follow-up data on a wide range of health effects and indicators of the functional capacity of the exposed children later in life. This includes the effect on the brain and nervous system, as previous studies have shown harmful effects among adults due to exposure in the work place, and the same is true of experimental studies with animals and cells.
Another focus of her research is markers of the ability to conceive later in life. Here Marie Pedersen will explore in more detail the possible connection between early exposure to acrylamide and the reproductive capacity of both men and women, as negative effects have been described in studies with rodents. Finally, she will examine whether acrylamide exposure increases the risk of diabetes and obesity.
'I look forward to getting started, because no research has so far been done into the possible connections between exposure early in life and the mentioned health effects later in life, despite the fact that we are all exposed to acrylamide and related Maillard-generated reactive substances. Acrylamide may turn out to have hitherto unknown unwanted effects, just as the project may be able to reveal other hitherto unknown harmful exposures formed at the same time as acrylamide. This will be the focus of the project', Marie Pedersen explains.
The EUR 1.5 million will go to determination of exposure to acrylamide, development of methods for biomarkers and wages for Marie Pedersen and a research team of four. She will be heading the team, which also comprises two postdocs and a statistician from Copenhagen and Stockholm, respectively.