New research points to life’s early years in shaping our future health

New research and recent studies are breaking down the old nature vs. nurture divide on how genes and the environment interact to shape who we are and how healthy—or unhealthy—we become. An innovative model, based on the science of ‘epigenetics,’ is uncovering how our environment interacts with certain genes to switch them on or off permanently or alter their expression—much like a light-switch dimmer.

“It’s now clear that maternal nutrition during pregnancy, exposure to different stimuli in the womb, as well as nurturing, diet and exercise in early childhood have major impacts not only on susceptibility to disease during pregnancy, but also on our health in childhood and over the course of our entire lives,” says Dr. Stephen Lye, a leading expert in developmental health, and Associate Director of Research at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital. “And this influences our risk of major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure and even impacts our potential to learn and socialize.”

Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital are breaking new ground in this area, and are garnering international attention for novel programs and studies looking at the interface between genes, maternal health and environmental influences.

Last summer, Dr. Lye was awarded $1 million from the University of Toronto to create a new Institute for Human Development. He is helping lead an initiative to understand how early experiences and the environment shape our individual health and potential. The Institute, centred at the University of Toronto, is well positioned to become one of the top initiatives of its kind worldwide by focusing on the factors that shape our lives from the earliest stages of development through to adulthood, with a focus on prevention and health promotion.

And while the new Institute will determine the role of genes in determining susceptibility to disease, the next step is to track and identify these genetic changes in people. To do this, Dr. Lye and colleague Dr. Alan Bocking, Mount Sinai’s Chief of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, are rolling out a new study this spring—the Ontario Birth Study—aimed at recruiting all pregnant women admitted to the hospital for prenatal care. In collaboration with colleagues with the Ontario Health Study and at the University of Toronto, Drs. Lye and Bocking will track the health of thousands of mothers and their children over the course of their lifetime.

With the new data from this Ontario Birth Study, Drs. Lye and Bocking, as well as Dr. Lyle Palmer and other Ontario researchers will examine the genetics of pre-term birth, developmental abnormalities, and the environmental factors that influence growth, development, learning and the lifelong health of the baby. The study is expected to bring research findings to the clinic for a new standard of care for women and their children—leading to a more personalized approach to their care.

“Through this study, we’re focusing on the long-term prevention of common, complex illnesses,” says Dr. Bocking. “Life’s earliest events affect the functioning of genes and the complex interplay of these with the environment. By fostering healthy early development, we have a better chance of preventing common adult diseases and promoting long-term health.”

More than 10,000 women and children are expected to participate in this innovative and prestigious clinical study over the next four years.