DMU prof lands NIH grant to compare genetic and environmental factors

You can hear the excitement in the voice of Jun Dai, M.D., M.Sc., Ph.D., associate professor of public health at DMU, when she talks about the three-year $488,819 grant she recently was awarded by the National Institutes of Health. A longtime researcher on the roles of environmental, epigenetic and genetic factors in chronic disease, she will use the grant to explore possible links between a specific epigenetic modification of DNA and the occurrence of type 2 diabetes and obesity, diseases that are serious global public health challenges.

A faculty member in both DMU’s public health and biomedical sciences programs, Dr. Jun Dai strives to support interdisciplinary learning and research opportunities for students.

Dr. Dai is also excited that the R15 grant requires that students be involved in the research. Her study will create opportunities for students in DMU’s osteopathic medicine and biomedical sciences programs in the College of Osteopathic Medicine as well as students in the public health program in the College of Health Sciences. Martin Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and nutrition, and Chunfa Jie, Ph.D., a statistician in biochemistry and nutrition, also will work on the grant study.

“The research will be done across departments, colleges and disciplines. Our mission and strengths in teaching, research and service contributed to our eligibility for R15 grants,” says Dr. Dai, who also is a member of the biomedical sciences faculty. “Drs. Schmidt and Jie will incorporate knowledge needed for this research in their courses so that students will be well prepared when they join my research team.

“As a research mentor, I find that students ask questions from perspectives I’d never thought of, which gives me novel ideas. It creates mutual benefits,” she adds.

Another bonus: She and her research team will collaborate with researchers at Indiana University, Penn State and SRI International, a research institute based in Menlo Park, CA.

“Our students will have opportunities to visit Indiana University’s centralized lab and to learn from scientists at other institutions. It’s important the next generation of public health professionals and researchers learn how to communicate and collaborate across universities and disciplines,” she says.

For the grant study, Dr. Dai and her colleagues will leverage the rich resources of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Twin Study, which began in 1969 as a population-based, prospective study on cardiovascular disease risk with emphasis on genetic and environmental factors in the United States. The study enrolled 514 middle-aged white male veteran twin pairs, including both identical and fraternal. All the twins were physically examined at baseline and during follow-up studies done by experienced cardiovascular epidemiologists.

In basic terms, Dr. Dai’s team will examine a specific epigenetic modification in the DNA, hydroxymethylated cytosine (5hmC), of twin pairs in which one member is obese or diabetic and the other is not. They hope to shed light on 5hmC’s connection to type 2 diabetes and obesity and whether it can be induced environmentally.

“Understanding that could impact disease prevention and treatment through the improvement of modifiable environmental factors,” she says. “Our study will offer a unique opportunity for engaging medical and graduate students in public health epigenome research.”

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