How experiences “get under the skin”: the link between genetics and early life

Dr. Michael Kobor has been appointed as the Sunny Hill BC Leadership Chair in Child Development. The Chair has a $6-million endowment that will support research on understanding how early life experiences affect gene expression to influence children’s health and development.

Dr. Kobor is the newly appointed Sunny Hill BC Leadership Chair in Child Development. An investigator at BC Children’s Hospital and a professor at the University of British Columbia, he seeks to understand why some children are affected by illness while others remain healthy.

“The DNA we’re born with doesn’t change, but our experiences cause genes to be turned on or off by varying degrees – much like the dimmer switch for a light bulb – and this process is called ‘epigenetic changes,’” says Dr. Kobor.

Dr. Kobor and his team will map the biological trajectories of healthy child development across the population at the molecular level. This will serve as the basis to understand the distinct trajectories of children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Furthermore, the molecular child development map will provide a unique knowledge base for evidenced-based interventions. Together, these three arms of the research program will serve as the cornerstones of an interdisciplinary training and mentorship program in child development.

“We’re aiming to create a system-level understanding of the developmental trajectory of early childhood development,” said Dr. Kobor.

The endowment’s yearly interest will support Dr. Kobor’s research program. It will allow him to set up a new program providing two to three years of specialized training in research methods and projects for five medical residents, clinical and postdoctoral fellows at a time.

The researchers will collaborate with investigators at the Human Early Learning Partnership group at the University of British Columbia and with clinical experts at Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children at BC Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Kobor is a world-leading expert in the field of social epigenetics. He is holder of the Canada Research Chair in Social Epigenetics, a scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at BC Children’s Hospital, and he serves as Lead for the Healthy Starts Research Theme at BC Children’s Hospital. Dr. Kobor is an investigator with Kids Brain Health Network, a co-lead of the Gene X Environment Platform of the AllerGen NCE, and a Senior Fellow in the Child and Brain Development Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).

The Sunny Hill BC Leadership Chair is made possible thanks to funding from LEEF, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Lawson Foundation, the Donald Rix Foundation and the Koerner Foundation.

BC Leadership Chairs are supported by the Leading Edge Endowment Fund (LEEF), which is managed by the BC Innovation Council on behalf of the Government of British Columbia. The fund, created in 2002, was established to promote social and economic development in British Columbia and to strengthen the province’s position as a centre of excellence in research. Using a cost-sharing partnership with the private sector, LEEF helped establish 20 permanent leadership research chairs at public, post-secondary institutions across British Columbia in the areas of medical, social, environmental and technological research.

The Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research network, based at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. HELP’s unique partnership brings together many scientific viewpoints to address complex early child development issues. HELP connects researchers and practitioners from communities and institutions across British Columbia, Canada and internationally.

UBC is one of North America’s largest public research and teaching institutions, and is consistently ranked among the world’s 40 best universities. Surrounded by the beauty of the Canadian West, it is a place that inspires bold, new ways of thinking that have helped make it a national leader in areas as diverse as community service learning, sustainability and research commercialization. UBC offers more than 58,000 students a range of innovative programs and attracts $519 million per year in research funding from government, non-profit organizations and industry through over 8,000 projects and grants.

BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute conducts discovery, translational and clinical research to benefit the health of children and their families. The Institute is supported by BC Children's Hospital Foundation and works in close partnership the Provincial Health Services Authority and its agencies including BC Children’s Hospital, and the University of British Columbia. For more information, visit