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NIH Takes on Population Health Disparities with Social Epigenomics

A new grant program will explore the relationship between population health disparities, socioeconomic stressors, and gene expression.

Population health disparities and social epigenomics

Source: Thinkstock

By Jennifer Bresnick

- The combination of precision medicine and population health management will help to reduce health disparities among underserved patients, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes.

A new $26.2 million grant program, funded as part of the Social Epigenomics Research Focused on Minority Health and Health Disparities initiative, has allocated funds to ten research projects aimed at better understanding the relationship between genetic factors, socioeconomic stressors, and health outcomes.

“We are on the cusp of unprecedented research where we are bringing together different fields of science: social science and epigenetics, to help elucidate how social factors affect biology in health disparity populations,” said Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, MD, Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Over the next five years, subject to available funds, researchers will explore the interplay of genomics with environmental and social determinants of health. 

External factors, such as air pollution, psychosocial stress, and dietary quality can alter gene function, giving patients experiencing negative environmental circumstances a fundamental disadvantage in their quest to live healthy lives.

“Health disparities may arise not only because of higher levels of exposure to environmental hazards among certain population groups, but also as a result of the synergistic effect of exposure to multiple environmental hazards and social stressors,” the NIH said in its grant application announcement.

“In addition, early life adversity, such as exposure to emotional or physical abuse or neglect, might alter DNA methylation levels creating an epigenetic signature, which in turn might influence risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and mental illness.”

Studying epigenomic variations within and between at-risk populations may be able to help public health officials, lawmakers, and clinicians develop new strategies to address negative social and environmental impacts on health.

“By identifying epigenetic modifications early before the onset of diseases, it may be possible to tailor interventions to prevent chronic conditions or diseases later in life,” the NIH notes.

“Research towards understanding the effect of various social experiences on epigenomic changes may lead to better understanding of mechanisms that will result in innovative strategies in disease diagnosis, prevention and/or clinical improvements in personalized care and reduction of health disparities.”

Researchers at academic organizations across the nation will examine a variety of conditions and diseases that may disproportionately affect underserved patients living in environments filled with stressors.

At the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, a team will explore whether changes in activity of specific DNA segments can mediate the stress-response behaviors of children and adolescents exposed to negative social factors, such as poverty and family instability.

A separate team from the Ann Arbor school will also investigate whether the same DNA alteration process is related to varying mortality rates from cardiovascular disease among different ethnic and racial groups.

Carrie Breton, ScD, from the University of Southern California Los Angeles, will research how maternal psychosocial stressors in socioeconomically disadvantaged Hispanic women impact the long-term health outcomes of their newborns.

Northwestern University will also focus on maternity and perinatal issues for patients with low socioeconomic status.  Gregory Evan Miller, PhD, will look at the role of socioeconomic conditions on prenatal gene expression, the likelihood of preterm birth, and the size of newborns.

Additional projects will evaluate PTSD in African American individuals, asthma among children of Puerto Rican descent, and the impact of food deserts, racism, violence, and obesity on specific racial and ethnic groups.

“This initiative is also intended to promote collaborations that will combine the knowledge and scientific expertise of social scientists, public health researchers and molecular biologists to develop innovative strategies to understand the interaction and linkage of epigenetics mechanisms to multiple factors that may create or contribute to the persistence of health disparities,” the NIH said.

“Interdisciplinary efforts are encouraged, including bioinformatics, biostatistics, molecular biology, epidemiology, social sciences, public health and clinical medicine, to tackle the complex issues associated with health disparities.”

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