Oct. 22, 2019

UCalgary Nursing professor contributes to landmark DNA study

Development of molecular 'clock' important new measurement for childhood growth

Nicole Letourneau, professor and ACHF Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health

Nicole Letourneau, professor and ACHF Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health.

A recent study on a new DNA “clock” that could measure a child’s epigenetic (changes to gene expression) age has an important implication for child development.

Dr. Nicole Letourneau, PhD, a UCalgary Nursing professor who holds the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health, participated in the landmark study, led by researchers at B.C. Children’s Hospital, the University of British Columbia (UBC )and the University of California, Los Angeles. The study investigated how a new epigenetic tool may show childhood risk for health and developmental problems. Letourneau is also a member of the Cumming School of Medicine's Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute.

“We are all born with a set of genes our own genetic code,” explains Letourneau, “but the expression of those genes can change: our environment can turn genes on or off. In other words, environmental exposures can methylate genes. And whether a gene is methylated may explain a host of health and developmental outcomes for better or worse. Some people call that an epigenetic signature.”

Epigenetic age, which reflects a person’s cellular or biological age, has been studied in an adult clock and linked to increased risk for illness. But the adult clock has not worked as well in children. The new Paediatric Buccal (PedBE) Clock, created by these researchers, accurately estimates the biological age of a child’s DNA from the cheek (or buccal) cells.

Letourneau has created a rich epigenetic database of three-month-old children from the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APrON), a study she has been leading, which has proved helpful to scientists. She explores socioenvironmental influences on children’s gene expression, especially the impact of maternal depression and adverse childhood experiences. The team from UBC used information from 10 international datasets including APrON to assist in creation of the PedBE clock.   

“It is not surprising to me that our work is valuable for these studies,” she says. “Nurses have always been interested in how the environment impacts health in individuals. It’s called precision population health care and nurses are at the forefront of this work.”

The PedBE clock could become a powerful tool, giving health-care practitioners a means to identify impacts of adverse early environments on children at risk for less than optimal health and development. Armed with this knowledge, they may be able to intervene earlier in a child’s life to prevent potential developmental disorders, ultimately leading to better outcomes.

The research was published this week in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science)