Scientists at the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit (CRU) are recruiting residents from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area to volunteer for two new National Institutes of Health studies (see text box). In one study, researchers want to find out if overweight girls go through puberty earlier than normal weight girls. The other study targets the epigenetic changes induced by smoking. The term epigenetics refers to the external or environmental modifications that affect how cells read genes, rather than the changes or mutations in the DNA sequence.
Factors that influence female adolescence
Natalie Shaw, M.D., lead researcher for the Body Weight and Puberty Study, said the study was sparked by recent reports of overweight girls developing breast tissue earlier than normal weight girls, with no difference in the time of the first menstrual period. These studies suggest that either fatty tissue is being misclassified as breast tissue in overweight girls or overweight girls are starting puberty earlier, but are progressing more slowly than normal weight girls.
"Before concluding that obesity is a primary driver of earlier puberty, it is critical for us to first determine whether traditional physical examination can reliably detect breast tissue in overweight girls," Shaw said.
Shaw explained that she and her team will compare breast maturation scores, which will be determined by the gold standards of physical examination and breast ultrasound. They will also investigate potential differences in the sources of estrogen, such as adipose tissue, ovaries, or endocrine disruptors, in obese and normal weight girls.
The science of smoking
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States, which translates to causing nearly one of every five deaths. Although the health impacts of smoking, such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, cancer, and reduced fertility are well-documented, the goal of the Epigenetic Biomarkers of Smoking Study is to develop new biomarkers of tobacco smoke exposure or e-cigarette use. The biomarkers will be based on analysis of DNA methylation, which is the addition of methyl groups to DNA and is one of several epigenetic processes that occur in cells.
Healthy smokers aged 18-55 years are encouraged to participate in the study. "We are especially interested in recruiting individuals who have quit smoking and currently use e-cigarettes," said lead researcher Douglas Bell, Ph.D.
CRU Medical Director Stavros Garantziotis, M.D., is a co-lead on the study and believes the samples that are collected could be used to determine if new laboratory tests are valid and precise enough to be used in other research studies and for quality control purposes. "These studies help us understand better how cigarette smoke, and new nicotine-delivery systems like e-cigarettes, can change our genetic information and affect our health," he said.
How you can help
If you are not eligible for these studies, the CRU has several other studies that need volunteers. Please help NIEHS researchers look for links between the environment and disease by joining a study listed under Open for Recruitment.