Studies of twins: what can they tell us about the fetal origins of adult disease?

Authors

  • Ruth Morley,

    Corresponding author
    1. Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Unit, University of Melbourne Department of Paediatrics, and Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, and
    2. Menzies Centre for Population Health Research, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
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  • Terence Dwyer

    1. Menzies Centre for Population Health Research, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
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Dr Ruth Morley, University of Melbourne Department of Paediatrics, Royal Children's Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia.
E-mail: morleyr@unimelb.edu.au

Summary

There has been much interest in evidence that people with lower birthweight have higher risk of adult cardiovascular disease, but the causal pathways underlying such observations are uncertain. Study of twins offers an opportunity to shed light on the underlying causal pathways, in particular by investigating the role of ‘shared’ factors vs. factors affecting each individual fetus. This involves comparing results of within-cohort vs. within-pair analyses.

Twins share many factors during gestation but birthweight discordance (difference in birthweight within a twin pair) cannot be determined by these shared factors and must relate to factors affecting growth of each individual fetus. If associations seen in a cohort of twins remain in within-pair analyses, then factors specific to each individual must be involved in the underlying causal pathways. Conversely, if the relationships disappear or substantially diminish in within-pair analyses, then factors common to the pair must be involved. Comparison of findings in monozygotic vs. dizygotic twins may provide insights into the role of genetic factors, although issues related to chorionicity need to be taken into account.

We tabulate published data and conclude that differences in methodology and analyses preclude informative meta-analysis, and that analysis of pooled data would provide more useful information.

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