GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Researchers at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids have been working to pinpoint the generational health effects a father can pass down to their children.
Dr. Heidi Lampradl and her team have continued that innovative journey using an unexpected research subject: fruit flies.
“We share actually about 60% of our genes with the fruit fly, which surprises a lot of people. And when you look at genes that we know cause diseases in humans, that it actually goes up to 70% to 75%,” Lempradl said. “So 75% of genes that cause diseases in humans are conserved in a fruit fly to some degree.”
Lempradl’s lab is strung with sticky fly traps and comics about the nuisance of fruit flies. She jokes as well that if a fruit fly were to land on her wine glass, she could tell whether it’s a male or female. And while enough fun can be made at the expense of the drosophila, what the VAI’s research is uncovering could change the way doctors approach diseases.
“Most of the diseases that we are studying in the lab have increased in the last decades and we really don’t know what’s behind those increases,” Lempradl said. “One of them is obesity, Parkinson’s disease, we also have a project in autism spectrum disorders. And so all the incidents of all of these diseases has increased tremendously and we don’t really know what’s behind it and that’s what we are trying to figure out.”
June is National Men’s Health Month. Studies have long shown the impact that mothers play in the health of a child but Lempradl says science has been shortchanging what dads bring to the table in the months leading up to family planning.
“If you and I were born to our parents twice, we would probably turn out differently even though we have the exact same genome,” Lempradl said. “We know now that it’s not just the genes that we are getting — so we are getting half of the gene from the mom and half from the dad — we are actually getting more from them. And that contains information about the parent’s environment and that can set us off as a slightly different path.”
That is epigenetics. The CDC defines it as “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” Lempradl pointed to groundbreaking research she did several years ago where father fruit flies were given high, medium and low levels of sugar. The high levels made them obese and the low levels were just enough for them to survive. Researchers discovered that the offspring of the high sugar fathers were more susceptible to obesity. Even though the flies were born normal, when exposed to high-sugar food, they became fatter than the flies born to the fathers of the medium and low levels of sugar.
“I think most men out there probably don’t even know what impact they potentially have on their children, apart from, you know, after they’re born. It already starts before birth,” Lempradl said. “And so what the father eats and what the father does and his his general health counts even before conception.”
Everything inside the lab is controlled in the exact same matter for each study. Lempradl’s researchers control the climate, diet, light cycles and reproduction of all the fruit flies. The reproduction rate is a major benefit to using the drosophila, which scientists have been doing for a long time. Lempradl says a fruit fly born today could be a grandparent in two weeks. That makes her work on generational health a little more sped up.
“We are now also looking at what’s really the mechanisms that are happening in the offspring. And so the goal in the end is … maybe we find something to intercept, maybe if we find something to prevent that from happening. And so that’s why it’s so important to find these molecular mechanisms that we actually have something that we could potentially turn into a treatment,” Lempradl said. “Disease prevention is really where we could save a lot of money. Where we could minimize the suffering. That’s like when we don’t even get the disease. And I think that’s the biggest thing that our science could change.”
Learn more about the work being done at VAI.