• Can epigenetic changes provide potential for Biomarkers?

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Can epigenetic changes provide potential for Biomarkers?

Mar 22 2022

“We uncovered previously unknown, early-onset epigenetic changes. They offer us new opportunities to further develop ways to identify children who have a risk of developing type 1 diabetes even before they get sick.” Riitta Lahesmaa

Two new studies led by researchers at Turku Bioscience at the University of Turku, Finland, have been able to link epigenetic changes to type 1 diabetes in children, providing potential opportunities for development of biomarkers for the disease.

While certain antibodies detected in children’s blood samples indicate an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes, the research highlighted that epigenetic changes – those that affect how our genes work, including environmental factors such as exposure to viral infections – were already present in the cells of the childrens immune systems before the antibodies of the disease were detected in their blood.

Professor Riitta Lahesmaa, Director of Turku Bioscience said: “We uncovered previously unknown, early-onset epigenetic changes. They offer us new opportunities to further develop ways to identify children who have a risk of developing type 1 diabetes even before they get sick.”

Development goals

“Our observations on epigenetics are extremely important as our goal is to develop methods and tools to prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes in children who are at risk of developing the disease” added Professor Laura Elo. Director of the Medical Bioinformatics Centre at Turku Bioscience.

In Finland, children's risk of developing type 1 diabetes is the highest in the world. In addition to the genetic susceptibility, environmental factors have a great significance for developing the disease.  The environmental factors include, for example, excessive level of hygiene, biodiversity loss, and environmental toxins.  

The newly published studies are based on long-term interdisciplinary research collaboration with international partners. The project has included doctors who are in charge of the patients and also conduct clinical research, researchers in molecular medicine and immunology, and experts in computational science. In the studies, researchers analysed longitudinal samples with deep sequencing covering the entire genome as well as with computational methods and artificial intelligence.

“Our research was enabled by close collaboration with Professor Mikael Knip from the University of Helsinki, who coordinates a study funded by the EU. He is also one of the key scientists in the national Type 1 Diabetes Prediction and Prevention (DIPP) project which was a partner in the other study,”  said Professor Lahesmaa. The studies(1) were funded by the Academy of Finland, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (USA), European Union, Business Finland, Novo Nordisk and InFLAMES Flagship.

Professors Lahesmaa and Elo are group leaders of the R&D initiative ‘Innovation Ecosystem Based on the Immune System’ (InFLAMES) which has received €5.6M funding for 2020–2023 from the Flagship Programme of the Academy of Finland.

A joint effort of University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University, InFLAMES aims to identify new targets for drug development together with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Focused on joint and coordinated efforts of more than 300 researchers, including several Turku Bioscience research groups –Elo, Eriksson, Ivaska, Lahesmaa, Mattila, Rantakari and Westermarck labs, - it also develops diagnostics so that targeted therapies could be designed for individual patients.

 (1) Published in Diabetologia and Diabetes Care journals

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