‘The internet is full of unsubstantiated claims of the harmful effects of folic acid’

23 Aug 2018

Assistant professor Anne Parle-McDermott of Dublin City University. Image: DCU

When not developing advanced biosensors, assistant professor Anne Parle-McDermott of DCU is trying to stem the tide of ‘fake news’ about folic acid and spina bifida.

After completing her PhD thesis in 1999, assistant professor Anne Parle-McDermott was a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Immunology and Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) until 2005.

Following this, she joined the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, also in TCD, as a lecturer for a year before making the move to Dublin City University (DCU) as a genetics lecturer.

A former president of the Irish Society of Human Genetics, Parle-McDermott is now an associate professor of the head of School of Biotechnology, a principal investigator of the Nutritional Genomics Group, and a member of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology and the Water Institute at DCU.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I spent a summer at Washington University (WU) in St Louis, Missouri, in the US when I was an undergraduate genetics student in TCD in the early 1990s.

Up to this point, I was surrounded by exciting research teams and inspiring lecturers within the genetics department and I absolutely loved my course. At WU, I experienced what it was like to work in a research lab for the first time and I think it was here that the ‘research bug’ got a firm hold of me!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My team is focused on two major research themes at the moment.

The first theme aims to decipher the importance of folate nutrition and specific genes in human development and during ageing.

As part of Beyond 2020, our second, more applied theme involves developing novel biosensors that exploit environmental DNA (eDNA) that have relevance for marine detection and beyond.

Although they seem like quite different projects, the skills, knowledge and capabilities that are involved in both themes have quite a lot of overlap.

I have been working with DNA and associated databases since 1992; the evolution in molecular methodologies and bioinformatics since then has simply been astonishing. I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture theatre during that period and hearing about the ‘world wide web’ for the first time.

Witnessing the evolution in molecular biology while I grew as a researcher myself gives me a unique insight that I find very useful as we tackle new and interesting research questions. This, combined with the new ideas and insights from my talented research team and our amazing collaborators, means we have an exciting few years of research ahead of us.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The research we do is both basic and applied research, and one really feeds the other.

The discoveries that arise from our projects will have such a wide range of applications, including the development of more tailored prevention and treatment regimes in human health.

It is now well recognised that one size does not fit all and we need to understand the basic biology before we can make inroads into precision medicine.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The most obvious commercial application from our current work is the development of on inexpensive device that can help monitor fish stocks by simply sampling the water. The utility of eDNA means that this can be expanded to monitor a range of other species or contaminants that are of commercial interest.

In the long term, our work in folate nutrition is likely to yield novel therapeutic targets and supplements that can both treat and prevent human disease.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Funding, funding and funding! It has proved to be particularly challenging to fund basic research here in Ireland.

We don’t know where the next breakthrough or ‘lightbulb moment’ will come from, and some of the most amazing and widely applicable discoveries started life out as basic research. For example, the CRISPR genome editing phenomenon arose from basic researchers in the molecular microbiology field trying to figure out what particular repeated DNA sequences in a bacteria’s genome were.

Creativity can lead us to places that don’t exist yet. It’s important that it’s not stifled through the endless grant-writing mill.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There is a lot of misinformation about one of the genes from the folate metabolic pathway MTHFR and the vitamin supplement folic acid.

While we know folic acid is important in preventing the development of the birth defect known as spina bifida, the internet is full of unsubstantiated claims of the harmful effects of folic acid. All health claims and information should be evidence-based.

My research team is committed to the development of a stronger social media presence to help counteract the flood of posts and videos that are simply misinformed.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

While folic acid prevents up to 70pc of birth defects known as neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida, there are a substantial proportion that do not respond.

Identification of novel supplements or treatments to prevent the remaining cases is an important area of research that needs to be tackled.

A high BMI also can increase risk of having an NTD-affected pregnancy; the underlying mechanism of why this is so needs to be elucidated to inform public health policy on supplementation dose.

The extraction and assay development of eDNA for various applications still needs improvement and development.