jamie goode's wine blog: Science in Cambridge

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Science in Cambridge

I’ve just spent two days doing a science gig, editing a meeting held at Clare College, Cambridge, on the role of the placenta in developmental programming. The work, which will involve producing a written account of the discussions that took place among a select band of scientists, is very similar to what I was doing before I became a full time wine writer. While I’m (fortunately) not short of wine work, I’m trying to keep my hand in with science just because (a) it’s interesting; (b) it’s worthwhile; and (c) sometimes doing something a bit different helps you to keep fresh, bringing a renewed perspective.

Once you get away from the low rent suburbs, Cambridge is a beautiful place. Like Oxford, it is a town that is shaped and defined by the presence of one of the world’s great universities. The walk to Clare from the station took me along the back of some of the leading colleges (Queen’s, King’s, Trinity, St John’s) and they look spectacular. Imagine studying at a university with 800 years of very obvious history like this. (Of course, you’d have to make sure you went to one of the old, prestigious colleges.)

So what was the take home message from the meeting? How the placenta seems to have quite important implications for the future of the fetus, with a strong correlation between certain placental growth patterns and the susceptibility to chronic disease in later life.

If you’ll excuse my rather loose use of language, it seems that the fetus is able to make some sort of calculation about the environment it is about to be born into, through sensing the nutritional state of the mother, and then tailoring its metabolic strategy to best fit this environment. This communication is mediated through the placenta. But these metabolic ‘choices’ have implications for susceptibility to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes in later life. This is the ‘programming’ referred to in the title of the meeting.

It’s strange to think that this fetal programming is more predictive of your chances of getting heart disease, for example, than how much you exercise, how fat you are, or whether you smoke or not. But that’s the case.

Now I'm back at home, reassuring myself that whatever happened to me in the womb (I was a small baby, at 6 pounds, which isn't great - it's usually best to be a big baby, although there's more to it than just that - but I was a twin, so things may be different) my moderate (notice I failed to define 'moderate') consumption of decent wine is likely to have some protective effect against cardiovascular disease. (I'm working my way through a case of samples from Yalumba.)


At 10:25 PM, Anonymous Alex Lake said...

How do you edit a meeting?

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

You record it, and then work from the tapes - in this case, half the time was allotted to discussion, and my job is to produce a much-edited transcript of these discussions that captures the spirit and content, but which is readable - because it's just 25 leading scientists taking part, all the discussion is reasonably worthwhile.

At 12:56 AM, Anonymous Lizzy said...

Forgive me for being trivial and I bow to your greater knowledge but I've always spelt it foetus (with an O) - is that wrong?

At 2:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

preco nie:)

At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foetus is the standard British form, and fetus American.


At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Sarah said...

Were the scientists independent and ethical (in terms of transparency regarding corporate hospitality and any financial interests)?

If yes, then their views might be of interest.

If no then their view is partial and worthless.

Do you agree Jamie or are you going to censor this?

ps Is Alcohol good for foetuses?

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Brigitte Armenier said...

"How the placenta seems to have quite important implications for the future of the fetus": is Cambridge slowly rediscovering "the forgotten factor of context" (Craig Holdrege)? Or could it be that you actually got off at Copenhagen station?

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Aidan said...


Glad to hear you enjoyed Cambridge! It's a truly lovely place, though I think the Backs are really at their best in early summer.

An irony, though, is that I don't think many of the people who actually live in the city centre are consciously aware of all that beauty - it's amazing how quickly gorgeous 16th-17th century buildings become a background phenomenon. Perhaps the gorgeousness still acts subtly on your subconscious, but it raises an interesting question - as with aroma, must there be change for us to notice beauty?

Not in any way a complaint, mind you - I'm grateful to live here (even in a low rent suburb) - just amazed at my own ability to tune it out.

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Chris Kissack said...

The foetus/fetus issue; it's a bit more than just Br. vs Am.

The word fetus (which is the correct spelling) is derived directly from the Latin fetus, meaning offspring.

The 'oe' words are derived from Greek, and include oestrogen, Oedipus, oedema and so on. The erroneous switch from fetus to foetus is language-snobbery that has been going on for hundreds of years, long enough for many to accept foetus as correct in preference to fetus. But it isn't, and most medical journals today enforce fetus.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Chris, as you'd expect from a paediatrician (Sun readers note: that is a doctor who specializes in children, not a sex offender) - fetus is correct in both the UK and the USA, at least in scientific circles.

Aidan - good point - and I like the name 'The Backs'.


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