(July 19, 2011—Toronto, ON)
New research at Mount Sinai points to life’s early years in shaping our future health
Marking a substantial rethink of genetic science, new research is breaking down the old nature-nurture divide on how genes and the environment interact to shape who we are and how healthy—or unhealthy—we may become. An innovative model, based on the science of ‘epigenetics,’ is uncovering how our environment interacts with certain genes to change their activity or to switch them on or off permanently—much like a light-switch dimmer.
Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are breaking new ground in this area, and are garnering international attention for novel programs and studies looking at the interface between genes and early environmental and developmental influences.
Dr. Stephen Lye, Associate Director of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital and professor in obstetrics, gynaecology and physiology at the University of Toronto, is part of a group leading the development of a new Institute for Human Development dedicated to understanding how early experiences and the environment shape our individual health and potential. The Institute—centred at the University of Toronto—is set to become one of the top initiatives of its kind worldwide.
“The Institute is an exciting initiative, in that it integrates the research of investigators from multiple disciplines and backgrounds to focus on how developmental trajectories impact our lives from the earliest stages of development through to adulthood,” says Dr. Lye. “By understanding how to modify these trajectories, we hope to improve health, optimize learning and enhance the relationships and social functioning of our children as they develop.”
“What makes the Institute especially unique is its focus on prevention and promotion, rather than measuring or managing risk and disease after it has already begun to unfold,” says Dr. Marla Sokolowski, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus.
“The Institute will bring together leading minds at the University of Toronto to explore the complex interactions between genes and the environment,” says Dr. Stephen Matthews, a professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Lye notes that the ‘conversation’ between genes and our environment starts in the womb, and continues in our early years of development. Birth weight (a surrogate measure for interuterine fetal growth) as well as breastfeeding in infancy, for example, may influence our risk of illness later in life. Dr. Lye and his colleagues are studying the impact of these factors as part of the RAINE study—an international project based in Australia that examines the impact of genetics and a baby’s environment inside the womb, to understand how these factors lead to major diseases later in life.
This study recruited 3,000 pregnant, recorded their birth parameters and followed their offspring for 20 years, studying a range of factors including growth, physiology, and psychosocial development. Dr. Lye and Dr. Lyle Palmer (Lunenfeld Senior Investigator and Director of the Ontario Health Study), together with Dr. Craig Pennell (Scientific Director of the RAINE study at the University of Western Australia) have genotyped the children and the parents—a process that will help to reveal important data about the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors involved in health and susceptibility to illness.
Currently, Dr. Lye is working with Dr. Laurent Briollais and his colleagues at the Lunenfeld’s Prosserman Centre for Health Research to use innovative, sophisticated statistical models to analyze data from the RAINE study with the goal of identifying key genetic variants and gene-environment interactions associated with weight and obesity. One aspect of their study will assess an adverse variant of the fat mass and obesity associated gene (FTO) and its impact on body mass index (BMI).
“A longer duration of breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk of being overweight later in life, but a possible interaction with the adverse FTO gene variant has never been studied over time,” says Dr. Lye.
“This study could suggest new interventions and preventative strategies in genetically susceptible children, through the use of breastfeeding,” says Dr. Lye. “As well, our work may enable use of these types of statistical models in assessing the impact of genes on other measures of lifelong health.”
In recognition of Dr. Lye’s pivotal work in this area, he was awarded an inaugural $1 million Connaught Global Health Challenge Award from the University of Toronto. Dr. Lye will be working with multi-disciplinary researchers from the University of Toronto, including co-senior investigators Drs. Carl Corter, Alison Fleming, Jennifer Jenkins, Stephen Matthews and Marla Sokolowski.
“The Global Challenge Award enables us to focus on a major challenge of the 21st century,” says Paul Young, University of Toronto’s Vice President of Research. “It will support research that is truly transformative in scope. Professor Lye and his collaborators are asking ambitious questions and the answers that emerge from this project and from the Institute of Human Development will have a far-reaching impact on our health and social systems and on the well-being of people around the world.”