Switching obese mothers to a healthy diet improves fetal hypoxemia, hepatic metabolites, and lipotoxicity in non-human primates

Stephanie R. Wesolowski, Christopher M. Mulligan, Rachel C. Janssen, Peter R. Baker, Bryan C. Bergman, Angelo D'Alessandro, Travis Nemkov, Kenneth N. Maclean, Hua Jiang, Tyler A. Dean, Diana L. Takahashi, Paul Kievit, Carrie E. McCurdy, Kjersti M. Aagaard, Jacob E. Friedman

Infants born to mothers with obesity show increased intrahepatocellular lipid storage. These offspring are at a higher risk of progressing toward obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and hepatic carcinoma later in life. Wesolowski and colleagues tested switching obese female non-human primates to a healthy diet prior to pregnancy and found improved fetal hypoxemia, hepatic metabolites, and lipotoxicity.

Objective: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) risk begins in utero in offspring of obese mothers. A critical unmet need in this field is to understand the pathways and biomarkers underlying fetal hepatic lipotoxicity and whether maternal dietary intervention during pregnancy is an effective countermeasure.

Methods: We utilized a well-established non-human primate model of chronic, maternal, Western-style diet induced obesity (OB-WSD) compared with mothers on a healthy control diet (CON) or a subset of OB-WSD mothers switched to the CON diet (diet reversal; OB-DR) prior to and for the duration of the next pregnancy. Fetuses were studied in the early 3rd trimester.

Results: Fetuses from OB-WSD mothers had higher circulating triglycerides (TGs) and lower arterial oxygenation suggesting hypoxemia, compared with fetuses from CON and OB-DR mothers. Hepatic TG content, oxidative stress (TBARs), and de novo lipogenic genes were increased in fetuses from OB-WSD compared with CON mothers. Fetuses from OB-DR mothers had lower lipogenic gene expression and TBARs yet persistently higher TGs. Metabolomic profiling of fetal liver and serum (umbilical artery) revealed distinct separation of CON and OB-WSD groups, and an intermediate phenotype in fetuses from OB-DR mothers. Pathway analysis identified decreased tricarboxylic acid cycle intermediates, increased amino acid (AA) metabolism and byproducts, and increased gluconeogenesis, suggesting an increased reliance on AA metabolism to meet energy needs in the liver of fetuses from OB-WSD mothers. Components in collagen synthesis, including serum protein 5-hydroxylysine and hepatic lysine and proline, were positively correlated with hepatic TGs and TBARs, suggesting early signs of fibrosis in livers from the OB-WSD group. Importantly, hepatic gluconeogenic and arginine related intermediates and serum levels of lactate, pyruvate, several AAs, and nucleotide intermediates were normalized in the OB-DR group. However, hepatic levels of CDP-choline and total ceramide levels remained high in fetuses from OB-DR mothers.

Conclusions: Our data provide new metabolic evidence that, in addition to fetal hepatic steatosis, maternal WSD creates fetal hypoxemia and increases utilization of AAs for energy production and early activation of gluconeogenic pathways in the fetal liver. When combined with hyperlipidemia and limited antioxidant activity, the fetus suffers from hepatic oxidative stress and altered intracellular metabolism which can be improved with maternal diet intervention. Our data reinforce the concept that multiple “first hits” occur in the fetus prior to development of obesity and demonstrate new biomarkers with potential clinical implications for monitoring NAFLD risk in offspring.