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NIH Awards Grants Supporting Social Epigenomics Research

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The National Institutes of Health has earmarked nearly $26.2 million over the next five years to fund research into the epigenomic effects of social experiences and how they relate to health disparities.

The funding is being provided by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities under the NIH's Social Epigenomics Research Focused on Minority Health and Health Disparities research program. The National Cancer Institute has also made a separate award under the program.

When the agency announced the program last year, it noted that disproportionately high rates of disease and other adverse conditions persist among certain groups in the US — such as racial minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged — despite an overall improvement in the health of the nation. Such health disparities have been linked to variations in exposure to chemical and nonchemical stressors, but how these stressors influence epigenomes and their roles in health disparities remains unknown.

The NIH has now awarded grant funding to 10 research groups to support a range of studies aimed at addressing this issue.

Among the grant recipients are a team from the University of Michigan that is studying whether DNA methylation mediates the effects of adverse social experiences on biological processes related to stress response and stress-responsive behaviors in children and adolescents; investigators from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign who will characterize genome-wide patterns of leukocyte DNA methylation in African American participants in a population-based study of mental disorders in Detroit; and researchers from the University of Florida who are investigating whether environmental stressors are associated with DNA methylation and telomere length among low-income, urban minority youth.

Another University of Michigan team was awarded a grant to study whether DNA methylation differences between African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and non-Hispanic Whites account for higher mortality rates for cardiovascular disease among African Americans; and a University of Southern California team will receive funding to study the effects of prenatal psychosocial stressors on maternal and fetal microRNAs in circulation, and whether these miRNAs impact newborn and early life health.

Other grant recipients include scientists from North Carolina State University studying the role of social adversity in youth obesity risk, as well as how maternal prenatal stress alters DNA methylation and influences child development and growth; a University of Pittsburgh team looking at how exposure to violence may increase risk of asthma and asthma morbidity by altering gene methylation; and a Beckman Research Institute group investigating whether insulin-resistance promotes epigenetic damage and triple-negative breast cancer risk among young women of color.

Lastly, a group from North Carolina Central University has been awarded a grant to analyze circulating miRNA and stress hormone levels in African-American prostate cancer patients to determine the effects of social stress on the disease; and a team of Northwestern University investigators will receive funding to examine how socioeconomic/psychosocial conditions affect prenatal DNA methylation, miRNA expression, mRNA expression, and inflammation, and how these conditions may influence preterm birth and small for gestational age among low socioeconomic status women.

"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," NIMHD Director Eliseo Pérez-Stable said in a statement.