Dr. Christy Ann Foster is a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s of Alabama.
How does diabetes change a teenager’s gene expression? That’s the question researchers in the Endocrinology and Diabetes Division at Children’s of Alabama are exploring. The topic is vital given the stratospheric rise in Type 2 diabetes in adolescents. In addition, the disease appears to be more aggressive than adult-onset diabetes, with adolescents losing up to 15 years of life expectancy due to comorbidities.
Research in adults shows that many complications of diabetes, including increased risk of cardiovascular and kidney disease, diabetic retinopathy, nerve damage and early mortality, appear to be related to epigenetic aging, in which gene expression changes while the underlying DNA remains the same. Epigenetic age is an indicator of biological aging, capturing the impact of environmental and behavioral influences across time on cellular function and the potential for disease. The higher a person’s epigenetic age acceleration, the higher their all-cause mortality and morbidity is. Ideally, a person’s epigenetic age corresponds to their chronological age; the epigenetic age of a patient with diabetes may be years older than their chronological age.
“I think the study of epigenetics is fascinating because it shows the way our genes can be changed by other influences,” Children’s pediatric endocrinologist and study leader Christy Anne Foster, M.D., said. “If we can understand these influences and how they can modify the impact of our genetics, there is potential for intervention.”
However, little research has been done on such epigenetic changes in children, and none in those with diabetes and/or obesity. Which is exactly what the study focuses on.
“With the impact of seeing such an increase in Type 2 diabetes in adolescents, and even pre-adolescents, we want to understand what developing this condition so early means for their long-term health,” Foster said.
The first step is a pilot study using the DNA of children and adolescents ages 12-18. Researchers are comparing the DNA of patients with diabetes and obesity to the DNA of those without either. They’re also comparing the DNA of patients with obesity to that of normal-weight children and adolescents. Researchers hope the study will establish that epigenetic aging occurs in adolescents with diabetes and/or obesity and will help them identify risk factors that can be addressed.. If the study is promising, researchers plan to do longitudinal studies to follow the impact of dietary and therapeutic interventions on epigenetic age acceleration.
One challenge will be determining whether the changes are the result of diabetes or something else, which is why the control group is so important, Foster said.
If the investigators do find a direct link between diabetes and DNA methylation, they may not be able to directly modify it, Foster said, but they could potentially support patients based on their social determinants of health and manage their risks that way.
Foster is partnering with Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health. She’s also collaborating with researchers at the University of Minnesota, who are analyzing the DNA for epigenetic changes. “Given the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in pediatric patients, understanding these changes in that population is critical,” Foster said. “These young people are at such high risk for complications with such a long-term diagnosis. The more we understand, the more we can hopefully improve their quality of life.”
 Lawrence JM, Divers J, Isom S, et al. Trends in Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes in Children and Adolescents in the US, 2001-2017. JAMA. 2021;326(8):717-727. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.11165