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.)