This year’s March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award has been presented to Kent L. Thornburg, Ph.D., for pioneering research and education that has changed the way scientists view maternal-fetal nutrition and the risk of chronic disease later in life.
Dr. Thornburg’s work helps demonstrate and explain why babies born prematurely, at low birthweight, or with intrauterine growth retardation are at greater risk for development of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and other late onset diseases.
Dr. Thornburg is the M. Lowell Edwards Chair of Cardiovascular Research at Oregon Health & Science University’s Knight Cardiovascular Institute, a Professor of Medicine at the OHSU School of Medicine, and Director of both the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness and OHSU Center for Developmental Health in the Knight Cardiovascular Institute. For 30 years, he has studied the outcomes of epigenetics, which refers to changes in the body that occur from the ways in which genes are regulated – their activity switched on or off, for example -- rather than from mutations or damage to genes themselves. He has made discoveries on the function of the placenta, nutrient transport, embryonic and fetal growth, and risk of disease.
Dr. Thornburg’s research has helped bring the “Barker hypothesis” – the idea that many adult onset diseases arise from stresses during pregnancy and development, like malnutrition -- from a controversial theory to the scientific mainstream. The hypothesis was named for his friend and professional collaborator David Barker, M.D., Ph.D., FRS, who died in 2013. Dr. Thornburg has shown that the consequences of poor growth during development or being born too soon can be passed on for generations from a person’s parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents, which is why he also calls it the “100-year effect.”
A native of Oregon, Dr. Thornburg received his bachelor’s degree from George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Oregon State University.
Dr. Thornburg has been an international leader in raising maternal-fetal nutritional standards to improve the health of moms and babies. He is an elected fellow of the American Physiological Society and serves as editor of several international journals focused on reproductive health and medicine. He serves on advisory panels at the National Institutes of Health and numerous other organizations.
Established in 1980, the March of Dimes Agnes Higgins Award honors the late Agnes Higgins of Canada’s Montreal Diet Dispensary for her innovation and years of service to the cause of improved maternal nutrition. A pioneer in devising methods of nutritional assessment and counseling, Mrs. Higgins greatly advanced the understanding of healthy eating as a crucial factor in healthy pregnancy and prevention of low birthweight. The Agnes Higgins Award is presented in recognition of distinguished achievement in research, education or clinical services in the field of maternal-fetal nutrition.