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Finding the genetic origins of childhood obesity

Environmental and Genetic factors to be studied

May 2, 2016 — 

Obesity is the fastest growing chronic illness in Canada, not only among adult men and women, but also in pregnant women and children. Pre-pregnancy obesity is a factor that increases the likelihood that a woman will develop diabetes during pregnancy. In turn, exposure to diabetes during pregnancy influences the risk for obesity development in children.

On April 29, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced $2 million in funding to an international team of scientists led by Vernon Dolinsky of the University of Manitoba to study populations of children and their mothers during pregnancy, to determine how diabetes during pregnancy influences the development of obesity in their children. Dolinsky is an associate professor of pharmacology in the Faculty of Health Sciences and research scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM), an affiliated research institute of the University of Manitoba.

“Currently we have little knowledge about how obesity develops in children and why some children are more susceptible than others, but we do know that if a child’s mother had diabetes during pregnancy there is a greater likelihood that they will develop obesity as children,” says Dolinsky.

“Obesity puts an immense emotional strain on children and puts them at risk of other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes at a much younger age. Our research aims to identify new biomarkers of childhood obesity that can be used to direct healthcare resources to provide better care to children at highest risk in order to improve their health and quality of life,” Dolinsky says.

The research will examine how specific exposures during pregnancy (such as diabetes) and in early life environment (such as being breastfed), influence epigenetics and the development of chronic conditions such as obesity, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney and cardiovascular diseases.

The project will use data from several ongoing and related studies across Canada, including:

  • iCARE study, the largest observational study of youth with type 2 diabetes in Canada
  • Next Generation cohort, Canada’s largest pregnancy study of women with confirmed type 2 diabetes prior to pregnancy
  • CHILD Study birth cohort, Canada’s largest general population cohort that includes 3,500 families funded by AllerGen NCE and CIHR
  • Gen3G population-based pregnancy until delivery study in Quebec
  • IDEA study on pregnancy outcomes, a randomized controlled trial of lifestyle (diet and exercise) for urban-living pregnant women in Winnipeg

“I congratulate Dr. Dolinsky and his team on this award,” says Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research and international) at the University of Manitoba. “These leaders will position this new network as a national leader in the area of developmental origins of obesity in children.”

“Most chronic diseases, such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity, involve multiple genes in complex interactions with environmental influences,” says Philip Sherman, scientific director, CIHR Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes. “New technologies have emerged that provide researchers with a greater understanding of the genome, the epigenome, the microbiome, and the metabolome.  This research funding will enable researchers to use these new technologies to better understand the complex interactions that cause chronic disease, and ultimately help us to identify better ways to prevent and treat chronic disease conditions.”

Research partners

This new research network includes 18 investigators (five clinician scientists, basic scientists and established researchers as well as eight new investigators) from the University of Manitoba, University of British Columbia, Harvard Medical School, University of Guelph and Université de Sherbrooke. They are: Vernon Dolinsky (UM/CHRIM), Canada Research Chair James Davie (UM/CHRIM), Marie-France Hivert (Harvard), Canada Research Chair Michael Kobor (UBC), Garry Shen (UM), Brandy Wicklow (UM), Meghan Azad (UM/CHRIM), Marica Bakovic (Guelph), Allan Becker (UM/CHRIM), Luigi Bouchard (Sherbrooke), Allison Dart (UM/CHRIM), Christine Doucette (UM/CHRIM), Joseph Gordon (UM/CHRIM), Grant Hatch (UM/CHRIM), Jonathan McGavock (UM/CHRIM), Elizabeth Sellers (UM/CHRIM), Kristy Wittmeier (UM/CHRIM), and Wayne Xu (UM/CHRIM).

The research is funded through the CIHR and its partners, Genome BC and Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, in the Environments, Genes and Chronic Disease program, as part of CIHR’s signature initiative on Environments and Health. This project is one of eight funded through this program (for a total of $16 million) today announced by the Government of Canada.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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