Trinity biologist Jonathan King, a father of two daughters, states the obvious when he says, "All parents want their kids to have a happy, healthy life."
“All parents” here includes those with a history of diabetes or overweight issues, a description of many San Antonio families. King, whose longstanding research focuses on the physiology of proteins that hold cells together, now stands ready to expand into a new area of study. He is helping San Antonio neonatologists with a year-long project to analyze the effects of overweight or diabetic mothers on the body composition of their babies.
King, professor and chair of the Department of Biology, is one of the principal investigators of the project “The Maternal Fetal Environment Alters Infantile Body Composition and Epigenetics” in collaboration with UT Health San Antonio (formerly the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio) and the San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) at Fort Sam Houston. The study is funded by a $150,000 Collaborative Research Grant from the San Antonio Medical Foundation.
At Trinity, King was joined by 16 students and computer science professor Matthew Hibbs on primarily two tracks: one conducting laboratory research to identify infants’ genes that may be altered or modified during pregnancy, and one focusing on educational outreach to mothers after giving birth.
Information about DNA gathered from cord blood samples at each baby’s birth enabled researchers to embark on what King described as a retrospective study of looking at what happened to the baby during pregnancy and how the baby’s development was related to the mother’s condition, specifically whether she was of a healthy weight, was overweight, or was diabetic. They wanted to understand if genes are read differently in healthy-weight moms or in obese moms as another way to assess a baby’s health instead of only observing a baby’s body composition.
“We looked at changes that happened at the molecular level in the fetal environment, or in utero,” King says, adding this allowed the researchers to start conversations with the families.
Beginning in the fall of 2016, about a dozen Trinity students serving as clinical interns interviewed pregnant mothers to gauge their interest in participating in the study. The moms who agreed to do so authorized the collection of cord blood by hospital employees at birth. The moms were asked to return to the hospital with the babies at three and six months to check progress, including the baby’s body composition, and to work with dieticians from UT Health. Admitting it was a challenge to keep parents engaged, King says many came back because of their positive interactions with students.
The Trinity students also set up Instagram and Facebook pages to keep in touch with the parents, which helped Rachel Jacob and Libby Lavender, the UT Health pediatric dieticians involved with the project. Students also tracked moms with appointment reminders and nutrition and immunization information for the infants.
“The moms had questions about the cord blood, and the students helped us put all the pieces together,” says Lavender. “They were a big piece of the project’s success.”
Another part of the project involved four Trinity students and Hibbs, who partnered with King to lead summer research on methylation, a chemical process that happens on top of DNA. Using the cord blood placed on laboratory chips,the Trinity researchers started with 850,000 data points for each patient, expanding to a data set of 27 million data points for all patients.
“That’s a lot of data, and it’s important to turn it into something we can understand,” says Heather Rizzo ’19, a biology major from Austin, Texas. With Hibbs’ help, they did; the team was able to find 12 genes that correlated to their study. Rizzo says she had to learn a statistical language called R to complete her methylation analysis and believes it will be a useful tool for the career she hopes to pursue in biological research.
Sarah Fordin ’19, from Loxahatchee, Fla., is majoring in biology with a minor in computer science. She says meshing the two disciplines during the summer program was interesting and fun. She also says finding 12 genes is a manageable way to understand the role of methylation.
“We want to conduct scientific research that is beneficial to the community,” Fordin says. “If you see your environment and see what you are eating, and how that affects your infant, these are the things you can do to help yourself and help your children.”
King, who had worked with several San Antonio neonatologists for about a decade, says he was eager to help medical doctors examine the science behind diabetes and obesity by asking, “What are the long term implications?” He notes that babies who begin life with diabetes face extra challenges.
“This opened up a new avenue of research for me,” King says. “Methylation and epigenetic research is an exciting area of biology that brings together genetics and the environment. It brings together the nature vs. nurture argument and asks if the maternal environment influences the children.”
The grant establishes a collaboration of physicians, nutritionists, and dieticians with Trinity faculty and students that focuses on what all parties view as a “pressing local problem.” King is applying for additional funding to continue the work, adding, “To think we could have some results that could move the needle in terms of decreasing the number of children set up to deal with diabetes by the time they are teenagers is amazing.” That would go a long way toward ensuring happy, healthy lives.