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NIH Tackles Population Health Disparities with Social Epigenomics Research

November 2, 2017
by Heather Landi
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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to award 10 grants to support social epigenomics research in health disparities. The investigator-initiated research is being funded as part of the Social Epigenomics Research Focused on Minority Health and Health Disparities research program, which seeks to support research to better understand the drivers of health disparities.

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of the NIH, will commit $26.2 million over five years, subject to available funds, for nine awards. An additional award under this initiative will be funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), also part of NIH.

Social epigenomics is the study of how social experiences affect the genes and our biology, according to a NIH press release. “Our experiences do not alter the genetic code itself; however, social experiences may bring about changes in the various molecules that interact with DNA, determining which genes are switched on or off. Recent studies suggest that social stressors may affect health status through epigenomic modifications of various biological pathways,” NIH officials said in the press release.

For example, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods with exposure to chemical stressors, violence, discrimination, residential segregation and psychosocial stress, and limited access to healthy foods, can affect a person’s ability to stay healthy, becoming barriers to health, the NIH states.

“We are on the cusp of unprecedented research where we are bringing together different fields of science: social science and epigenetics, to help elucidate how social factors affect biology in health disparity populations,” NIMHD director Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., said in a statement.

Research geared toward understanding how epigenomic changes are influenced by social experiences may lead to a better understanding of mechanisms and pathways that may ultimately affect minority health and health disparities. By identifying epigenetic modifications prior to the onset of disease, researchers hope that it may be possible to tailor interventions to prevent chronic conditions or diseases later in life which may result in better approaches to disease prevention, and early diagnosis, with the end goal of reducing health disparities.

At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, researchers will examine whether DNA methylation mediates the effects of adverse social experiences, such as poverty, harsh parenting, family instability and neighborhood disorganization, on biological processes related to stress response and stress-responsive behaviors in children and adolescents.

University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign researchers will characterize genome wide patterns of leukocyte DNA methylation in African American participants in the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study, a population-based study of mental disorders among adult Detroit residents. Analyzing glucocorticoid receptor regulatory network genes, they will test the effects of social adversity on DNA methylation levels.

Another group of researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, also awarded a grant, plan to study whether differences in DNA methylation between African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and non-Hispanic Whites helps explain why mortality rates for cardiovascular disease are higher among African Americans and how socially-patterned risk factors become physically embodied.

At the University of Florida, Gainesville, a research team will investigate whether environmental stressors, such as racial discrimination and exposure to violence, are associated with DNA methylation and telomere length among low-income, urban minority youth, which can help inform biological mediators of stress effects on emotional/behavioral health.

A research team at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles will evaluate whether psychosocial stressors in the maternal environment impact the pattern of expression of maternal and fetal microRNA (miRNA) from low SES Hispanic women and whether the expression of these miRNA can impact critical newborn and early life health outcomes indicative of future health trajectory.

At North Carolina State University, Raleigh, researchers will explore mechanisms by which social adversity confers risk for obesity in youth among Blacks, Hispanics and Whites and unravel the pathways by which mothers' prenatal stress may alter DNA methylation and influence early development, growth trajectories and childhood obesity.

Additional award recipients are the University of Pittsburgh; Beckman Research Institute, City of Hope, Duarte, California; North Carolina Central University and Northwestern University. Their research projects will examine issues such as exposure to violence, epigenetic variation, and asthma in Puerto Rican children, the impact of food deserts on specific racial and ethnic groups and disease risk, as well as examining socioeconomic disparities in perinatal risk.

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