In a dramatic rethinking 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 switch them on or off permanently, or alter their expression—much like a light-switch dimmer.
Recent, pivotal studies are showing that factors such as maternal nutrition during pregnancy, exposure to different stimuli in the womb, as well as nurturing, diet and exercise in early childhood have major impacts not only on susceptibility to fetal disease during pregnancy, but also on our health in childhood and over the course of our entire lives. Epigenetic changes can affect lifelong metabolism and influence our risk of major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, for example, and even impact our potential to learn and socialize.
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.
This Summer, Dr. Steve Lye (Lunenfeld Associate Director) led a successful proposal worth $1 million to create a new Institute for Human Development, an initiative he is helping lead to understand how early experiences and the environment shape our individual health and potential.
The Institute—centred at the University of Toronto—is well positioned to become one of the top initiatives of its kind worldwide, and 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, with a focus on prevention and health promotion. Thanks to Dr. Lye and the members of the Women’s and Infants’ Health research group, the Lunenfeld is playing a leadership role in this initiative.
“The essence of the project is to discover how trajectories are set early in life and how they impact health, the potential for learning and social functioning,” says Dr. Lye. “And we believe the way to do our investigation most effectively is by looking at the trajectories from a multitude of perspectives.”
And while the new Institute will determine the role of genes in determining susceptibility to disease, the next step is to track and identify these genetic changes (and their influences) in people. To do this, Dr. Lye and colleague Dr. Alan Bocking, Mount Sinai’s Chief of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, are rolling out a new study early this year—the Ontario Birth Study—aimed at recruiting all pregnant women admitted to the hospital for antenatal care. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Toronto and our sister institutions, Drs. Lye and Bocking also hope to track the health of mothers and their children over the course of their lifetime.
“The Ontario Birth Study is a critical component of the translational research agenda for Mount Sinai Hospital and the Samuel lunenfeld Research Institute,” says Dr. Bocking. “It is particularly important as we move forward in creating personalized medicine to further improve patient care.”
With the new data from this Ontario Birth Study, Drs. Lye and Bocking and other Ontario researchers will examine the genetics of pre-term birth, pre-eclampsia, developmental abnormalities, and the environmental factors that influence growth, development, learning and the lifelong health of the baby. It’s the first study of its kind in North America and is expected to bring research findings to the clinic for a new standard of care for women and their children.