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Kristen Boyle, PhD

Assistant Professor,
Department of Pediatrics


Research Description


What is your research?

My BIRCWH project is “Maternal Programming of Fetal Stem Cells”, which focuses on obesity during pregnancy. When the mother is obese, there are extra triglycerides, cholesterol and lipids present as well as associated oxidative stress.  When a woman is pregnant and obese, we think that this interferes with how the child develops and could potentially lead to obesity later in in life. From studies of obese animals, when we look at skeletal tissue of fetuses, the muscle does not develop as well as it does from a normal weight animal. The muscle fibers are not as healthy, do not develop as well (fibers are smaller), and do not function as properly. Additionally, there are more lipids in and around the tissue.  As the animal grows, the forced production of the muscle is not as efficient and fatty muscle develops.  I am looking at how obesity in humans alters the muscle development of babies.

How will you tackle your research question?

I will culture stem cells from umbilical cord tissue which gives representative stem cells from the fetus. These stem cells are progenitor cells for all sorts of cell types including muscle, adipose, bone, and connective tissue. Depending on the signal that it receives during development, progenitor cells become fat, muscle, or connective tissue.  What we think is happening from the animal models is that excess lipids and oxidative stress that are present during pregnancy actually shift the signals which tell which way the cells will differentiate. They may be shifting to more of an adipocyte differentiation as opposed to a myocyte differentiation, contributing to a fatty muscle development. In the animal model, the muscle cells do have more chondrocytes, or connective tissue and more connective tissue leads to more fibrotic tissue.  We think that maternal obesity is disrupting how these cells are differentiating. I am focusing on how skeletal muscle might be developing poorly in fetuses.

The first part of the research is to see how the stem cells from the umbilical cord differentiate with or without the presence of excess lipids and with or without the presence of oxidative stress. I will then take this further into human models to look at umbilical cord stem cells from the offspring of lean mothers and of obese mothers and put in a myogenic differentiation to see if they have any inherent disability. I will be looking at whether the cell differentiation in fetuses from obese mothers is strictly environmental or if they are programmed. Epigenetically, are these cells responding to signals?

What is the timeline for your project?

I am hoping to finish the project within the next 18 months (in the summer of 2014). I will be writing publications and additional grants to extend this project with the goal being to gain independence as a researcher and have my own lab. My BIRCWH mentor is Jed Friedman and additional mentors on the project include Vivek Balasubramaniam, Neda Rasouli, Joe Hurt, and Lynn Barbour.  

How did you become interested in this work?

I started out in exercise physiology and did my PhD studies in Bioenergetics at East Carolina University.     

Why is your research important?

My research will help to understand how muscle develops differently as a result of maternal obesity.  Understanding this process could lead to treatment interventions that could prevent adiposity in the development of the child. The end goal is to reduce obesity.
To learn more about the BIRCWH program at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, click here: