Large-scale study of epigenetic landscape to understand and overcome diabetes in Indigenous Australians

21 September 2022

The first large-scale study of the epigenetic landscape of Indigenous Australians could help tackle some of the chronic diseases faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The project, led by Professor Alex Brown, Head of Indigenous Genomics at Telethon Kids Institute, The Australian National University and South Australian Medical and Research Institute, has received funding under the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

Indigenous Australians are severely disadvantaged by a lack of access to the emerging field of “personalised medicine” – where a patient’s individual genetics and epigenetics are used to estimate their disease risk and to target effective treatment.

The study of epigenetics focuses on the processes that control when particular genes are turned on or off, and how environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle and stress can affect gene expression.

Biomarkers can be developed from epigenetic profiles when combined with other patient information.

Professor Brown said the lack of epigenetic data for Indigenous Australians means researchers know less about severe disease in our First Nations populations than in other groups.

“Type 2 Diabetes drives a raft of life-limiting complications in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and infectious diseases,” Professor Brown said.

“In this study, we will build a first-of-its-kind framework for developing epigenetic biomarkers for Indigenous Australians. All of this will be made possible by our already established South Australian Aboriginal Type 2 Diabetes cohort, known as the PROPHECY Cohort.”

“We will use this established, large cohort of Indigenous Australians to document epigenetic profiles that can be used to develop accurate biomarkers,” Professor Brown said. "These biomarkers can then be used to target early prevention and management of diabetes and its complications."

The project will be carried out in partnership with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, Monash University, The University of Sydney and The University of Western Australia.

It has been funded under the Medical Research Future Fund’s Genomics Health Futures Mission.