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The Contribution of Epigenetics in Pediatric Environmental Health


The interaction of the environment and the genome has become a major interest to the epigenetics community, so The Contribution of Epigenetics in Pediatric Environmental Health (held May 30-June 1, 2012) meeting promised to be a really interesting event. Harvard’s Rebecca Rancourt made the trek out west and helped us out with coverage. Check out what’s new in environmental health from her trip to the Bay Area.

Contribution of Epigenetics in Pediatric Environmental Health Overview

The Contribution of Epigenetics in Pediatric Environmental Health was held in sunny San Francisco, CA and was located on top of Nob Hill at the historic and beautiful backdrop of the Stanford Court Renaissance Hotel. The conference organizers, the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN), are celebrating their 20th anniversary.  Over that time, they have achieved many accomplishments and remain impassioned about their mission “to protect the developing child from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment”. Drawing inspiration from the famous Golden gate bridge, which just turned 75 years old, the goal of this event was to highlight research that is pushing forward to identify factors that bridge together health and environment.

This meeting attempted to cover a lot of ground in a short about of time and succeeded by having keynote speakers discussing the broader story on Environmental Epigenetics and mini symposiums run in parallel focusing on specific topics such as Biomarkers, the Role of Nutrition and Epigenetics in Human Health, Mechanisms, Environmental Epigenetic: from Mice to Humans, two sessions on Critical Windows of Early Exposure & Sensitivity, and the Association between Epigenetics and Pediatric Disease and Exposure.  Even though there were a small number of posters, the session was very lively.

Environmental Stressors

David Epel, Stanford University
Dr. Epel opened the conference with an informative comparison of embryos versus adults and how life at the start must deal with environmental stressors.  The introduction of the various lessons learned across species was a good way to start off the meeting on how vulnerable the developing embryo is in a constantly changing world.

Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan
Dr. Dolinoy, one of the keynote speakers, presented on optimizing a “mice to men” approach. Dolinoy’s research focuses on the effect of plastic-makers Bisphenol A and Phthalates levels on disease and health.  In combining high throughput methylation and expression arrays with Agouti mouse models, human derived samples and population based cohorts in identifying where the data overlaps and differs can help determine the best way to use mouse models to study human health.

Pollutants such as arsenic, BPA, lead, alcohol, tobacco, air pollutants and endocrine disrupting chemicals were discussed on their possible assault on the epigenome.   Unfortunately given today’s environment it may not be about exposure to one specific chemical but more about exposure to various chemical mixtures and doses that researchers need to focus on. (See more on Dr. Dolinoy and Bisphenol A)

What Does Normal Look Like and Are There Epi-answers in the Blood?

Recurring points that were discussed across sessions were the use of blood samples and the need for healthy (‘normal’) epigenotypes to be understood and characterized. The ease of collecting blood samples is understandable with human research; however does epigenetic data on blood translate to relevant biological function and address the target question?

Andrea Baccarelli, Harvard School of Public Health
Dr. Baccarelli started off this topic of tissue specificity versus blood discussing the need for more research to study which sub-population of blood cells are changing DNA methylation. What will changes in blood mean and can biomarker assays involving the epigenome (e.g. DNA Methylation) tell us about environmental exposure and disease outcomes as a marker or is it directly showing the mechanism?

Carmen Marsit, Dartmouth Medical School
Dr. Marsit illustrated the placenta as a powerful sample/tool for studying in utero environment and exposures.  Examining how the placental epigenome reacts to different stressors can lead to understand what functional changes may occur.  However just as more information is being gathered about the presence of chemicals and toxins, it may be more critical to know what is needed for normal healthy outcomes.

Most of the research discussed was focused on DNA methylation perhaps due to the availability and storage-friendly properties of DNA samples. In order to make a complete characterization of the human epigenotype more attention in obtaining RNA and chromatin samples need to be considered in the early planning of cohort collection.

Taking Scientific Knowledge to the Public….With Policy Changes

This was an interactive meeting with scientific discussions often continuing on after the sessions and into the breaks, something I was thrilled about after my own talk on imprinting methylation marks and fertility treatments.  There was a nice mixture of backgrounds including scientist, clinicians, epidemiologists and representatives from children and health organizations (e.g. Autism Speaks) which resulted in many big-picture questions.

The most unique feature of this conference was the morning and lunch time policy sessions with panels consisting of members of the CEHN, Environmental Protection agency (EPA), National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development, and various Schools of Public Health.  The panelist kicked off the policy topics and then opened up the floor for the audience to participate.  These policy sessions were well attended and sparked interesting conversations.

The main theme in the policy sessions was that open communication across the scientific peers needs to increase with the focused goal of making key scientific information accessible to the public. Perhaps together the science and public can unite in a clear voice directed at policy makers in order to make changes faster for the sake of children’s health.

Mark Hanson, University of Southhampton
Dr. Hanson provided a nice overview of the new insights and opportunities in Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). Hanson closed off by saying that perhaps going after the adolescents will be an effective way to inform the parents of tomorrow to make healthy nutritional choices that will benefit themselves as well as future generations.

The presence of these policy sessions really speaks to the goal behind the CEHN, which is working to make every child have a safe and healthy environment.  The conference delivered many stimulating conversation and had outstanding networking opportunities which will hopefully translate into fruitful future collaborations.

**EpiGenie thanks to Rebecca C. Rancourt, Ph.D. who is a Research Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Obstetrics and Gynecology Epidemiology Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston for her work providing this conference coverage.