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VCU receives $3 million grant to study molecular marks left by childhood adverse experiences

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Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine, VCU.
Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine, VCU.

Virginia Commonwealth University has 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.

The Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine at the VCU School of Pharmacy, in collaboration with Duke University School of Medicine, will conduct the five-year study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health.

“Childhood adverse experiences such as severe illness, neglect or maltreatment have been robustly linked to psychiatric and other medical conditions where the consequences often persist far into adulthood,” said Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine and principal investigator on the study. “Our goal is to study how these early adverse experiences become biologically embedded and how they create long-term health risks.”

Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine, VCU.
Karolina Aberg, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine, VCU.

“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.”

Aberg is 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 capitalizes on a study started at Duke University about 20 years ago that involved 9- to 13-year-old children. That study continues today as the participants are in their 30s. Because detailed assessments and blood samples were obtained at two-year intervals, the investigators can 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. 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,” van den Oord said.

The Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine has been in operation since 2006. The center aims to alleviate the tremendous personal, familial and societal burden of mental illness through using leading edge genomic technologies to identify leads for new medications and molecular marks that can be used in the clinic to tailor treatment to individual patients.

The project is supported by NIH grant R01MH104576.

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.