Environmental risk factors in MS: Epigenetics at work?

Dr Lawrence Ong

The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, NSW

| Causes and Prevention | Genetics | Incubator | 2018 | Investigator Led Research |


A person’s DNA contains genes. Genes are used to direct things like our eye colour and height. However, the environment one lives, while it can’t change our DNA sequence directly, can affect which genes are used and how active they are, and which ones are silenced. These changes are referred to as epigenetic changes.

Epigenetic changes can be different in different cells of the body. During this Incubator Grant Dr Lawrence Ong will look at epigenetic changes in cells of the immune system in children and adults. The immune system is responsible for protecting our bodies from pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses), however, in MS, the immune system can mistakenly attack cells in the brain and spinal cord. These attacks can result in the relapses and the disability that people with MS can experience.

In this project, Dr Ong will specifically look at the epigenetic changes that occur after immune cells from children and adults have been exposed to vitamin D. This will help him determine if environmental influences, such as vitamin D levels, during childhood can affect the function of immune cells in adulthood. He will aim to use this Incubator grant to obtain preliminary data that will help him work towards identifying ways to prevent MS in the future.

Progress to Date

Dr Ong has successfully optimised the workflow to investigate whether exposure of cells of the immune system to vitamin D causes epigenetic changes. In preliminary findings, Dr Ong has found that treating adult immune cells with vitamin D causes changes in the way the cells look compared to cells not treated with vitamin D. He also found that exposure of these cells to vitamin D caused epigenetic changes to immune genes and MS-associated genes.

Dr Ong is currently investigating whether immune cells from children show greater epigenetic changes when treated with vitamin D.

These findings suggest that vitamin D exposure may result in long term changes in the function of immune cells that may have an impact on the risk of developing MS.

Dr Ong has presented these findings at a local meeting and is hoping to present them at an international meeting in the near future.

Updated: 31 March 2019

Updated: 02 January, 2018


Grant Awarded

  • Incubator Grant

Total Funding

  • $24,700


  • 1 year

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Environmental risk factors in MS: Epigenetics at work?