"The results offer a model for testing whether the effects of a high-fat diet and obesity can be repaired through dietary intervention, a key question when extrapolating this data to human populations," said Daniel L Marks, professor of pediatric endocrinology at Oregon-based OHSU's Doernbecher Children's Hospital.

Several years ago, Marks and his colleagues developed a mouse model that closely mimics the high-fat, high-simple-sugar diet currently consumed by many young women of child-bearing age.

Their subsequent research demonstrated that maternal over-nutrition in mice significantly reduced the size of the foetal liver.

On the basis of this information, Marks partnered with another stem cell expert Peter Kurre.

Together, they discovered the complex changes that occur as a result of maternal high-fat diet and obesity put significant constraints on the growth and expansion of blood stem cells in the foetal liver, which ultimately compromises the developing immune system.

"In light of the spreading western-style, high-fat diet and accompanying obesity epidemic, this study highlights the need to better understand the previous unrecognized susceptibility of the stem and progenitor cell system," Kurre explained.

The findings may provide broad context for the rise in immune disease and allergic disposition in children, the authors said.

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