DNA Study

Reporter: Monika Kos

Fiona Molloy has what every parent could hope for.. happy healthy children.. and she wants it to stay that way. We all know how important diet and nutrition are to keep little bodies healthy.. but what we don't know is how food can affect children's DNA. "We believe, certainly in adults, that eating well means that you'll have much more healthy DNA, but nobody's looked at that in children." Dr Liz Milne is the chief investigator of a three year study that is looking at the role diet plays in keeping children's DNA in the pink. "If we can establish what the links are between children's nutrition and the health of their DNA, then we'll be better placed to advise parents about what specific nutrients lead to healthy DNA in their children."

DNA is short for De-oxy-ribon-nucleic Acid .. It's found inside almost every cell, and is the genetic information that's passed from parents to their children. It shapes absolutely everything about us.. how tall we'll be, what eye colour we'll have, what we'll look like. "It shapes the physical being that we are. It shapes the function of every cell in the body. Without DNA there would be no life. It's very important that we make sure it's as healthy as possible."

While the DNA that shapes who we are is set for life.. as children grow, cells replicate and new DNA is constantly being made. Dr Liz Milne says "The making of the DNA and the making of copies of it as children grow and live their normal lives depend on specific vitamins and minerals so without those, or if there's a deficiency of those, then the cells aren't able to work properly."

The consequences of that could be dire. "Damage to DNA, or unhealthy DNA is related to more chance of having illnesses like cancer or diabletes. So the study that we're doing it looking to find out whether a similar relationship exists for children as have been seen in adults."

The results could help parents better protect their children from developing serious, even life threatening illnesses.

"Parents will be able to better understand just how important it is, that it isn't just related to obesity or to specific illnesses, but perhaps to how healthy their children are later on in life."

The study's being conducted at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Western Australia, in conjunction with the CSIRO in South Australia. All testing's done in Perth, with the samples being sent to Adelaide for diagnosis. A blood sample's taken, saliva swabbed, and parents asked to answer some simple questions about their child's diet.

Dr Liz Milne says "We're looking at children between 3,6 and 9, and we've chosen those ages specifically because they tend to be the ages at which children's diet changes. At three they're very very dependent on their mother and what their mother gives them."

Stirling was three when he took part in the pilot study, but even then, he was a fussy eater. "I still eat treats sometimes but not too many, only about one a day maybe. A treat? yes, only like one a day."

"He's a good eater, but a fussy eater, so I've always worried that he was getting all of the nutrition that he required." Which is why Fiona was eager to sign up.. to learn if her little man really was lacking. Fiona says "It was interesting. From the blood test Stirling was getting pretty much everything, on the whole he was above average. Where he lacked was in iron. As a result, when he used to ask me for more meat I would always say no, eat your vegetables, but now if he asks me for more meat I'm more than happy for him to have some extra meat at a meal."

Hamish Whiting is six, and like many boys his age, doesn't always eat what mum serves up. Kerry says "He doesn't eat any fruit and vegetables as it is so, you know he eats a lot of breads and cereals, and so we were worried he wasn't getting enough vitamins and things."

How many pieces of toast would you have for breakfast Hamish? Two or three. And then what do you have for lunch? Cheese and bacon rolls. Oh mum didn't know that (laugh).

But mum Kerry had her suspicions.. and is hoping her concerns will be answered when she gets the results of Hamish's blood tests.

Dr Liz Milne says "In our pilot study, the feedback that we gave parents shows some children had lower than ideal intake, say of dietry fibre, or their energy intake was higher than would be expected of a child their age and size, some children had low calcium, or low folate levels."

Kerry says "We always offer good food and he goes through periods of better eating and worse eating but yeah, definitely based on the results we would change his diet to make up for what he needed. " Armed with the results of Stirling's participation in the study, Fiona Molloy's already making changes to his diet.. to ensure he gets plenty of iron rich foods. But she knows it'll be worth it in the long run. "To have that reassurance that your child is eating healthy and growing the way that they should be but you know also you're contributing to the bigger picture."Kerry says "Anything that you can do to reassure yourself and to help with the overall wellbeing of the community, is a really good thing to do."

The study will run for another year and a half, and is looking to recruit 450 healthy children.. especially 3 year olds..* If you'd like to take part, send an email to dietgenome@ichr.uwa.edu.au

Or for more details go to The Telethon institute's website is www.childhealthresearch.com.au