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Epigenetic signature indicates prenatal cigarette smoke exposure

Can a blood sample taken from children up to the age of five detect whether or not a mother smoked while pregnant? According to a recent study lead by M. Daniele Fallin, Ph.D and scientists at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the answer is yes.

It is well known that exposure to certain chemicals and toxins accumulates in the blood throughout our lifetime, but new research suggests that the same may be true before we are even born. How this exposure affects one’s health in the long-term has yet to be determined, but further research may be able to determine possible links to diagnoses of autism, heart disease, and obesity just to name a few. In addition to cigarette smoke, researchers are exploring the possibilities of detecting other prenatal toxic exposures, such as chemicals in plastics, undetected infections, and contaminants in drinking water.

A study from J.B. Herbstman et al. (2012) tested the cord blood of newborns and found that for 26 locations on the genome, the amount of DNA methylation correlated with whether or not the mother smoked while pregnant. Dr. Fallin and her team took this a step further and tested the blood of 531 preschoolers and interviewed the mothers about smoking while pregnant and found their test to accurately predict prenatal smoking exposure 81% of the time. This confirmed the molecular memory, or “epigenetic signature” left behind in the child from prenatal smoke exposure. Some may argue that the results from the preschoolers were the result of secondhand smoke exposure, but that does not account for the cord blood results from infants.

Do you think epigenetic biomarkers at birth could indicate the diagnosis of chronic conditions later in life? What are the challenges of determining other prenatal toxin exposures, besides cigarette smoke?

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Enzo Life Sciences’ epigenetics portfolio is focused on the enzymology of epigenetic regulation including HDACs, sirtuins, HATs, methyltransferases, and demethylases.

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