U of T research could lead to child health revolution

What if you could prevent your daughter from developing heart disease—before she was even born? Or maximize the potential of your children to do well at school – before they actually start going to school?

Though they sound like science fiction, these are exactly the kinds of questions Professor Stephen Lye will tackle as he spearheads an ambitious new research and outreach program with $1 million in funding from U of T’s Connaught Fund.

Lye is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and physiology at U of T and senior scientist and associate director of research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute. He is a world leader in the field of women’s and infants’ health.

The Global Challenge Award will enable Lye and collaborators across U of T to launch a series of research activities aimed at understanding the relationship between children’s earliest experiences and their well-being throughout the life course.

Historically, science has believed that genetics is destiny. Scientists are, however, increasingly coming to understand that it is the interaction between genes and the environment that is important. Still, these interactions are not well understood.

Lye offers an example. Past research has discovered a particular gene linked to obesity. “There are two variants of this gene, an adverse variant associated with high body mass index (BMI) and a normal variant. We’re looking at the impact of this variant throughout fetal life and after birth.”

It would seem that babies with the adverse variant are destined to become obese, but that’s not necessarily the case. Lye and his colleagues found that those babies with the adverse variant who were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life grew up to have lower BMIs than they otherwise would have. In this case breastfeeding acted as an environmental influence that mitigated the potential negative effect of the adverse genetic variant.

There are potentially thousands of other environmental interventions that can affect the expression of our genes. Lye stresses that the project isn’t just focused on health. Similar work looks at the impact of development on children’s ability to learn and on how they form relationships as children and adults.

“The essence of this project is to discover how trajectories are set early in life and how they impact health, potential for learning and social functioning.”

“Then we’re going to ask what we can do to modify these trajectories,” he said. “We don’t just want to study this. We want to have outcomes. We want to focus on how we can optimize the full potential of our children.

Lye’s Connaught Global Challenge Award is the basis for the soon-to-be-established Institute for Human Development at U of T. It will jump-start the institute by supporting several initiatives:

• a multidisciplinary research study that will identify specific mechanisms by which an individual’s genetic makeup affects his or her response to adversity early in life and develop interventions to maximize child health and well being;

• an international symposium bringing together experts from around the world to U of T to share knowledge to improve child health;

• a strategic planning workshop bringing together public and private researchers to generate a blueprint for action to turn research into positive outcomes; and

• a distinguished visiting scientist program that will bring five leaders to Toronto to help develop research programs for the new Institute of Human Development, network with students and conduct outreach through a public lecture series.

Lye’s co-senior investigators are Carl Corter of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Alison Fleming of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), Jennifer Jenkins of human development and applied psychology at OISE, Stephen Matthews of physiology and Marla Sokolowski of biology at the UTM.

“The Global Challenge Award enables us to focus on a major challenge of the 21st century,” said Paul Young, U of T’s vice-president (research) and chair of the Connaught committee. “It will support research that is truly transformative in scope. Professor Lye and his collaborators are asking ambitious questions and the answers that emerge from this project and from the Institute of Human Development will have a far-reaching impact on our health and social systems, on the well-being of people around the world and on our children’s children.”

Founded in 1972, the Connaught Fund was created from the sale of Connaught Laboratories, which first mass-produced insulin, the Nobel award-winning discovery of U of T professors and students Frederick Banting, Charles Best, J.J.R. McLeod and James Collip. The university has stewarded the fund in the years since, awarding more than $100 million to U of T researchers. Today, the fund invests nearly $4 million annually in emerging and established scholars.