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Twin study searches for answers to the question of how to create healthy children

Brigid O’Connell, September 9, 2018 7:00PM Herald Sun

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The study, by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, will look at the differences between twins to find a way to create healthy children. Picture: Rob Leeson media_cameraThe study, by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, will look at the differences between twins to find a way to create healthy children. Picture: Rob Leeson

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A world-first Australian study will scan* the brains of 300 fraternal* twins who have been followed since before they were born and are now 11 years old.

The study, by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, will look at the differences between the twins to find a way to create healthy children.

Identical twins have the same DNA* or genetic* information in their bodies and fraternal twins have a similar set of genetic information. But twins can develop different illnesses, intelligence, behaviours and physical skills, even when growing up in the same home.

The $1 million study will use brain scans of fraternal twins to see if how the brain is physically structured and how it works can give clues to the development of their health, behaviour, emotion, language, motor function* and intelligence.

The project will also look at the many samples taken from these children over the past 12 years such as the size of the placenta* and positioning of the umbilical cord*, cheek swabs* taken at birth, their early life illnesses and how fast they grew before they were born, for insights* into their development.

Twins Charlie and Sebastian play at the House of Mirrors as part of the Brisbane Festival, Queensland. Picture: Mark Cranitch media_cameraTwins Charlie and Sebastian play at the House of Mirrors as part of the Brisbane Festival, Queensland. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Lead researcher Associate Professor Jeff Craig, from Deakin University’s Centre for Molecular and Medical Research, said there was more and more evidence that these differences between twins were “epigenetic*”. This means that the differences were caused by whether the genes were turned on or off, or whether the genes have an effect or not.

“I liken epigenetics to the musicians who play the symphony of life on our genes,” he said, meaning that epigenetics choose which genes are turned on or off, like a musician chooses which notes to play and which aren’t played.

“People talk about genes being a blueprint*, but you need an architect to work with the plans.”

Mildura twins Isabella and Alessandra. Picture: Jason Edwards media_cameraMildura twins Isabella and Alessandra. Picture: Jason Edwards

Associate Prof Craig and Professor Richard Saffery have been studying 500 identical and fraternal twins for 12 years, as they look to separate environmental factors from the genetic influence in a child’s development. The 300 fraternal twins are part of this larger twin study.

The project has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

“There is a myth* that twins experience the same environment in the womb*,” he said.

“They all have separate inner sacs*, their own umbilical cord and at least a share of a placenta.

Epworth Geelong Hospital had three sets of twins born in the last week of August this year. Allison Napier and Damian Cahill with Flyn and Archie Cahill, George and Lee-Anne Camora with Evie and Joshua Camora and at the front Erika Novak and Midwife Mel Briggs with Vincent and Viktor Novak. Picture: Mike Dugdale media_cameraEpworth Geelong Hospital had three sets of twins born in the last week of August this year. Allison Napier and Damian Cahill with Flyn and Archie Cahill, George and Lee-Anne Camora with Evie and Joshua Camora and at the front Erika Novak and Midwife Mel Briggs with Vincent and Viktor Novak. Picture: Mike Dugdale

Associate Professor Craig said in Brazil there are cases where only one child of twins develops with a smaller head when both have had the zika virus. “How on earth does that happen?” he said.

“What are these individual factors, and how do they predispose* twins — and ultimately everybody — differently to chronic* disease? It’s still not fully understood.”

Zaina Nehme’s identical twin boys Marcos and Gabriel have been part of the study since before they were born.

Identical twins Marcos and Gabriel both love soccer. Picture: David Caird media_cameraIdentical twins Marcos and Gabriel both love soccer. Picture: David Caird

While both boys are good at maths and enjoy soccer, only Gabriel has eczema and asthma.

“We treat them the same, but they do react differently to the environment,” Mrs Nehme said.

“Little by little they are showing their different strengths and weakness. It will be fascinating to find out why there are these differences.”


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GLOSSARY

  • scan: look at something carefully, in this case with special medical equipment
  • fraternal: non-identical
  • DNA: the information part of our cells that instructs our bodies how to grow, look and function
  • genetic: a sequence of DNA
  • motor function: movements and actions of our bodies, such as walking
  • placenta: the organ that provides oxygen and nutrients to us before we are born
  • umbilical cord: connects unborn baby to the placenta
  • cheek swabs: a scrape on the inside of the cheek to collect cells for medical testing
  • myth: widely believed untruth
  • blueprint: plan
  • womb: another name for the uterus, where a baby is before it is born
  • sacs: fluid-filled compartments unborn babies float in
  • predispose: make someone likely to have or do a certain thing
  • chronic: over a long time; opposite to acute or sudden

QUICK QUIZ

  1. Which sort of twins have the same DNA: identical or fraternal?
  2. What two main ways will the study get information?
  3. How long have the researchers been studying the twins?
  4. What myth about twins is mentioned?
  5. What are Marcos and Gabriel both good at? How are they different?

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Request for funds
Imagine you are Associate Professor Craig putting together a proposal for funding for this study. Write a letter to the National Health and Medical Research Council requesting the funds you need.

Include details about:

  • why you wish to complete this research
  • how you plan to collect the data
  • how many sets of twins you need and why you want twins specifically
  • what the money is needed for
  • what findings you hope to make from the study.

Remember you are writing a formal letter so the language you use needs to reflect this.

Curriculum links: English, Science
Time: Allow 30 minutes

2. Extension
For the study to be possible you need people to be involved. Create an A4 poster that can be displayed to inform people about this study. Include:

  • details of the study (what they are hoping to find out)
  • what subjects are needed (subjects in this case are the sets of twins)
  • how they would need to be involved (what tests/information is collected, how often)
  • how this information will help them and the whole community how they can become involved

You want your poster to be enticing to encourage people to sign up. You can be as creative as you like. In this activity your audience is the general public so your language and details about the study should reflect this. It does not need to be as formal or as technical as in the first activity.

For example, you might use phrases such as:

  • Can you help us prevent chronic disease?
  • Your twins could be the key to the future!

Time: Allow 30 minutes
Curriculum links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

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