Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) received a five-year, $3 million grant to study how adverse experiences such as severe illnesses, neglect, and maltreatment during childhood leave molecular marks in DNA that predict health risks later in life.

Funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine at the VCU School of Pharmacy will conduct the five-year study in collaboration with Duke University School of Medicine.

“An accumulation of evidence from animal and human research implicates DNA methylation,” said Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine. “Methylation is a process that involves small chemical changes to the DNA that can be the result of the environmental factors such as adverse events.”

Dr. Aberg will be responsible for the laboratory components of the project that involve measuring the methylation status of approximately 28 million possible sites in the human genome using the most recent high throughput sequencing technology.

The project comes from a study that began at Duke University about 20 years ago that involved 9- to 13-year-old children. It continues today as the participants are in their 30s. Detailed assessments and blood samples were obtained at two-year intervals, allowing the investigators to compare DNA methylation profiles before and after adverse events and link changes to health outcomes later in life.

“DNA methylation can be measured cost-effectively and blood samples are relatively easy to collect,” said Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine and principal investigator on the study. “The study could therefore result in biomarkers that can be used in the clinic to assess the biological impact of childhood adversity to help better manage health risks.”

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