If you sequence the DNA of cells in your body, it all looks the same, whether it’s a muscle cell or an eye cell. But they do different things, and what makes them different is epigenetics.

“Epigenetics looks at the modifications that are placed on DNA that give them their cellular identity,” said Christian Ka’ikekūponoaloha Dye, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mailman School of Public Health’s Laboratory of Precision Environmental Health. “I look at how cells respond to environmental stimuli, how environmental exposures influence these modifications, and how they function.”

The broader aim of Dye’s work is to leverage epigenetic epidemiology to improve intervention and preventative care. He aspires to help develop culturally-specific and culturally-sensitive health care by building a relationship of shared information between researchers, health care providers, and communities. “It’s a new approach, one that takes community expertise into account, and tailors preventative strategies to resonate with the communities they serve.”

Dye received his Ph.D. in molecular biosciences and engineering from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. His interest in chronic diseases stems from his passion for his native Hawaiian community, which is disproportionately at risk for adverse health outcomes. “I’ve seen family members and community members suffer from diabetes, heart disease,” he explains. “For me, this is all about the community, and that can include your family, your household, your neighborhood, your people.”

At Columbia, Dye is involved in a number of projects that probe the connection between exposure and disease with a focus on cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. He uses epigenetic information to better understand the mechanisms of these diseases and helps to develop biomarkers linking environmental exposures—pollution, chemicals, and lifestyle—to disease risk.  

Dye contributes to large-scale environmental and epidemiology studies that explore the interface between environmental exposures and metabolic diseases, including the Strong Heart Study, which focuses on heart disease in Native American communities. Specifically, Dye researches how a mother’s arsenic exposure may increase diabetes risk in her offspring. This includes inquiries into whether arsenic-associated DNA methylation changes, which are a type of epigenetic modification, may be evaluated as biomarkers for diabetes in adult offspring, or if DNA methylation patterns may be seen as a surrogate measure of children’s risk.

He also contributes to an ongoing study of aging conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs through which he explores associations between metal exposures, systemic inflammation, and diabetes outcomes, and he investigates whether extracellular vesicle microRNA may be used as biomarkers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  

Dye looks forward to bridging his work in epigenetic epidemiology with mutually beneficial and inclusive community-based research with underrepresented populations, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. He calls this approach “community epigenetics” as he uses the science of epigenetics to diagnose disease, develop prevention strategies, and evaluate effectiveness in a way that is tailored to the community being served.

“Health is a spectrum of things that come together,” he concludes. “Epigenetics alone isn’t going to be the answer. It’s going to take different multidisciplinary approaches, and I think that is an avenue that we all should pursue.”

— Karina Alexanyan, Ph.D.