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inSCIde the spotlight: Professor Michelle Plusquin    Oct 11, 2018

inSCIde the spotlight: Professor Michelle Plusquin
Oct 11, 2018


Prof. dr. Michelle PLUSQUIN



Obesity, a condition in which the abnormal and excessive accumulation of fat poses a serious health risk. Every year more than 2 million people die as a consequence of overweight or obesity. The prevalence of obesity has tripled over the past 43 years, with over half a billion cases worldwide. However, childhood obesity is now on the rise as well, with more than 124 million children suffering from it, placing an entire generation at risk. Today on World Obesity Day we ask ourselves the question: How can we counter this serious public health challenge? Should prevention of childhood obesity already begin before or during pregnancy? And what do we actually know about it?


“Childhood obesity is a real problem.” – Susan Neely.

Every year new professors start their academic journey at Hasselt University. In ‘inSCIde the Spotlight’ we want to showcase their hopes, dreams and especially research to the world. Today on ‘World Obesity Day’ we aim our inSCIght spotlight at Professor Michelle Plusquin.

“Childhood obesity poses one of the most serious public health challenges of our century as its rates have already doubled in the past two decades. Obese children are more likely to stay obese into adulthood as well as develop diseases like diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, certain types of cancers and cardiovascular diseases at a later age. Understanding and preventing it, therefore, requires a high priority.”


With the STOP, Science and Technology in childhood Obesity Policy, project the European Union brings together 31 international research and advocacy organizations. The goal is to generate policy-relevant scientific evidence to tackle the current wave of childhood obesity and overweight and evaluate the effects of alternative measures that address this issue. Together with Prof. Tim Nawrot, Prof. Michelle Plusquin is part of this massive consortium.

“With this project, we want to better understand how the environment in which we live, both before birth and in the earliest years of life, shapes the development of children. In order to obtain our piece of the puzzle, we use the ENVIRONAGE (Environmental influences on Early Aging) birth cohort.”


The ENVIRONAGE cohort was initiated in 2010 by Tim Nawrot and is a collaboration with the East-Limburg Hospital located in Genk. It was brought to life to investigate the influence of environmental exposures during the prenatal and early life period on the general health of children. Initially, the cohort was initiated to study ageing from early life onwards but over the years it has been expanded to various other health topics such as childhood obesity.

“We recruit the mother-child pairs just before the delivery. Without their valuable contribution, none of our work would be possible. They provide us with maternal and umbilical cord blood, placental tissue and maternal urine. In addition to this, the mothers fill out an extensive questionnaire (focusing on topics like in-house environment, education, health status, stress, life-style habits, …). Three days after delivery, the blood pressure of the child is measured and the neonatal behavioral assessment scale is completed. After that, there is a follow up study at the age of 4. The cohort is, therefore, a valuable and massive source of information. On this data, we then unleash our statistics and try to answer the question if we are aware enough as a society about how much we need to protect pregnant women from environmental factors.”


“There are two different aspects at which we take a closer look for the STOP project. The first one is the mechanism of obesity and overweight. In order to gain a better understanding of it, we look at signals in umbilical cord blood, which can be influenced by events before or during the pregnancy, using molecular measurements, epigenetics, gene expression, etc. We will investigate if these signals are predictive for their BMI in childhood.”

“The second one is the assessment of our environment. The origin of obesity can be traced back to many factors including things like ‘what is the importance of nature in the surroundings of children’ and ‘does our environment engages us enough to exercise’ for example."


Research like this can spearhead innovative strategies and specific applications in environmental healthcare so our society can better protect unborn children against environmental exposures and therefore safeguard future generations.

“In the future, I would also like to investigate the effect of other factors on the health of children, like for example stress during childhood, as well as integrate multiple environmental and life style factors together. In our field, this is called the exposome, the totality of human environmental exposures starting from the moment of our conception. However, our methods are not capable yet of achieving this goal. But every year we make progress. In the end, the only way is forward.”


The STOP project, led by Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine (UK) and in collaboration with 31 partners, is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.