The National Institutes for Health/National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities awarded a collaboration of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Johns Hopkins University and three other institutions a five-year, $2.5 million grant to study how social adversity impacts the risk of childhood obesity.
Researchers will focus in particular on mothers who have significant stress during pregnancy and through their lifetime and whether that impacts the development of obesity in their children.
“The goal of the grant is to begin to unravel the mechanisms by which social adversity contributes to obesity risk early in life,” says Sara Johnson, M.P.H., Ph.D., the principal investigator on the project from Johns Hopkins University. “This is an area called ‘social epigenetics’ where we study how early life experiences can cause some genes to be silenced or to be more active over time. We are testing the hypothesis that prenatal stress is associated with changes in genes that are involved in growth and metabolism in offspring.”
The study leverages data from an existing Johns Hopkins All Children’s study called PREDICT, a groundbreaking study of healthy children and the factors that help them stay that way.
Researchers plan to recruit 470 mothers with half coming from Johns Hopkins All Children’s-affiliated OB/GYN clinics. They will collect data on the mother’s experiences (both stressors, as well as supports and buffers that may protect her and her child). Neonatologist Mitzi Go, M.D., MSCR, FAAP, will be the principal investigator for the Johns Hopkins All Children's site in St. Petersburg, Florida. Other participating sites in the study, collaborating with Johns Hopkins All Children’s and Johns Hopkins University are Duke University, Yale University and JHU-affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute.
The researchers will analyze how stress is related to methylation of genes. Methylation can act like a light switch, turning gene expression up or down, even without changing the underlying DNA sequence. The researchers will follow the children to watch their growth patterns over the first 24 months of life. Previous studies show that children who are overweight in the first 24 months of life have about a six-fold increased risk for obesity at age 5 and increased risk for chronic health problems across their lifetime.
The latest grant is the fourth NIH award to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital since its integration with the Johns Hopkins Health System in 2011. Previous grants were for a study analyzing whether saliva can be used as an alternative to blood for measuring metabolites of a chemotherapy drug doxorubicin, a phase 3 clinical trial on treatment of blood clots in children and a study to use existing registry resources to conduct trials in an efficient and low-cost way in understudied patient populations such as neonates undergoing heart surgery.
“For the past several years, we have been so fortunate to bring the unique expertise of talented faculty like Dr. Sara Johnson to Johns Hopkins All Children's and our community by developing strong collaborative relationships across the Hopkins Pediatric campuses in St. Petersburg and Baltimore," says Director of Research Neil Goldenberg, M.D., Ph.D., a principal investigator on the PREDICT study along with Johnson. "These relationships are bearing fruit in the form of major external grant awards and impactful scientific publications, and will continue to bear fruit as we develop even broader multidisciplinary multicenter collaborations among Johns Hopkins All Children's investigators, other Hopkins research groups, and colleagues at other academic health systems that share our vision and passion for improving health outcomes for children.”