Wilfried J.J. Karmaus, MD, Dr. Med., MPH
Professor and Director, Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Environmental
School of Public Health
Professor of Epidemiology
Robison Hall 301
- MPH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Dr.Med., University of Hamburg
- Matriculation, Albrecht-Thaer-Gymnasium in Hamburg
- Environmental exposures and health outcomes
- Maternal and child health
Wilfried Karmaus – Thinker, Dreamer, Doer
Dr. Wilfried Karmaus is an epidemiologist, trained as physician in Germany and as
epidemiologist in Chapel Hill, NC. His interest covers environmental exposures and health outcomes, mainly in the life span from
pre-conception to adolescence (maternal and child health). The overarching objective
of this research is to understand the role of pre- and postnatal exposures and to
re-set their adverse effects. To this end, he is interested in epigenetic mechanisms
(changes on top of the DNA), in particular DNA methylation. On the one hand, DNA methylations
constitute a memory of past exposures; on the other hand DNA methylations modify the
risks related to genetic variants. Whereas the DNA sequence provides the blueprint,
epigenetic information instructs on how, where, and when the blueprint is used. Given
an identical blueprint, environmentally-induced changes may introduce gene activity
(or silencing) or different splicing of the gene, which results in a lower or higher
production or a production of altered proteins. Interestingly, DNA methylation can
be inherited. As a consequence, it may be that our grand-parents are responsible for
the diseases that we experience.
His research has shown that explanatory models including genetic and epigenetics information accounts a much larger proportion of
diseases than just genetic models. The risk shows a 4- to 40-fold increase. Hence,
epigenetics has a great promise and will ultimately lead to improved prevention and
therapy. Dr. Karmaus’ idea is to identify epigenetic patterns (due to past exposures
in this or prior generations) result in a higher susceptibility to asthma, eczema,
allergies, and obesity. The challenge is then to re-set such patterns of DNA methylation
to those with a lower risk of disease. Re-setting to lower disease susceptibility
may be possible only in specific life-phases and may involve diet, behavior, and changes
in the social, physical, or biological environment.
The data of these studies (for instance genome-wide DNA methylation and multiple genes
in the IOW study) is rich and can be linked with multiple health outcomes measured
repeatedly in longitudinal studies. Hence, one of his dreams is to establish a “100 student summer project”. He believes that the synergy of a summer project (3 months) with 100 motivated and
dedicated students will critically advance our understanding of environmental exposures,
gene, DNA methylation and numerous diseases.
Another dream is to test in specific trials whether we can re-set parts of the DNA methylation
to a non-susceptible state and thus improve not only the health of the current generation,
but - due to the inheritance - also the health of future generations.
Dr. Karmaus is currently working on five studies, which offer ample opportunities for projects for graduate students and interested
- A NIH-funded project on “Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of allergy in a
multigenerational cohort” (R01 AI091905, 1/1/2011 – 12/31/2015), PI: Dr. Karmaus.
A multi-center team is investigating the epigenetic inheritance in the Isle of Wight
(IOW) birth cohort. The IOW birth cohort was established in 1989; currently the team
is examining the 3rd generation. The aims are to determine DNA methylation in mother-father-offspring
triad and to test inheritance and prediction of inherited epigenetic marks for eczema
and allergy in infancy.
- The Michigan Fisheater Study (supported by ATSDR/CDC, PI: Dr. Janet Osuch at Michigan
State University). Wilfried Karmaus is testing the extent to which grand-maternal
serum levels of PCBs and DDE (a metabolite of the insecticide DDT) measured between
1973-1991 change the gene expression in mothers and grand-children (measured between
2007 and 2012).
- The Breastfeeding and Child Health (BACH) study, funded by the Thrasher Foundation,
PI: Dr. Karmaus. This project is investigating the role of prenatal immune markers
and immune markers and fatty acids in breastmilk for infant wheezing and eczema.
- The Narodichi Children Study (NCC) funded in the past by the U.S. Civilian Research
and Development Foundation, PI: Karmaus. Dr. Wilfried Karmaus is collaborating with
scientists in Kyiv, Ukraine. The project examines health sequels in children after
the Chernobyl accidents in 1986. Since the radioactive exposure has a long half-life,
even 25 years after the accident, the scientists still detect adverse hematological
effects and reduction in lung function.
- The GRACE study (“Long-term lung health after exposure to chlorine gas”), PI: Dr.
Erik Svendsen at Tulane University), funded by NIEHS. In January 2005, a rail disaster
in Graniteville, South Carolina led to the release of a huge amount of chlorine gas,
exposing a large population (n~5,000). The objective of this project is to link a
chlorine plume model with pre-/post-event spirometry measurements in mill worker.
The analyses will provide novel assessments of long-term respiratory health effects
of chlorine gas.
Dr. Wilfried Karmaus enjoys working with graduate students and established a model of apprenticeship. Through hands-on activities, students
learn on how to conduct and analyze epidemiologic studies. In addition, they learn
to present their results at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. This experience
provides an excellent starting point for careers in industry and public health.