Temples is an assistant professor in Clemson’s School of Nursing and teaches family nursing and nursing care for children.
Image Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON — Heide Temples, a Clemson University School of Nursing faculty member, has earned national recognition for her work showing that breastfeeding may be a key to preventing childhood obesity. The American Nurses Credentialing Center has awarded Temples with its 2017 Certified Nurse Award in the Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner category for her work.

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, Temples has seen a large portion of children and adolescents deal with sleep apnea, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and other assorted health problems that accompany childhood obesity. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, her quest to find what she calls the possible “holy grail” in the fight against childhood obesity began more than 24 years ago at the start of her career.

Patients provided evidence that led Temples to believe breastfeeding had positive effects on reducing the chance of childhood obesity. However, the evidence was strictly anecdotal, so Temples began to pursue a different career track that led her to become a Clemson nursing faculty member concentrating on health care genetics. Anecdotal evidence wasn’t good enough; Temples sought to find a concrete biological link between the lack of breastfeeding and childhood obesity.

“Breast milk is a live substance that interacts with a child’s genes and everything I saw pointed to breastfeeding being linked to healthier children,” Temples said. “I wanted to know what that interaction was, how we could understand it — perhaps even control it — in order to reduce childhood obesity.”

The first step was redirecting her career. After becoming a faculty member at Clemson, Temples earned a Ph.D. in health care genetics from the university and since has focused her research on understanding what breast milk does on a molecular level. Her research has become a promising, integral part of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Peri/post-natal Epigenetic Twins Study, a longitudinal study examining 250 sets of twins that has taken place in Australia over the last seven years.

“The study is amazing both in its depth and complexity and the minds behind it are devoted to reliable, consistent measures,” Temples said. “The detailed histories, DNA samples and long-term measurements provide a unique opportunity to examine the effect genes have from before birth into early childhood.”

Thanks to this research experience, Temples is zeroing in on her “holy grail,” the novel epigenetic biological mechanisms that affect genes associated with breastfeeding and obesity. Her research thus far suggests that the longer a child is breastfed, the less the chance they will be predisposed to weight problems and long-term health issues.

SGI lab photo

Temples looks forward to returning to Australia to extend her promising research from eight subjects to 179.
Image Credit: Heide Temples

The sample Temples is studying consists of 179 individuals. A preliminary test of eight of them revealed significant differences between three groups representing varied time spent breastfeeding. Children who were breastfed longer were leaner and had a healthier weight and smaller arm and abdominal circumference. Temples will return to Australia this summer to further hone in on these novel genes by examining the remaining 171 individuals’ DNA methylation status.

“The genes we’re examining are associated with growth, development, fat metabolism and insulin usage and we’re just getting started,” Temples said. “It’s exciting to think that we may someday be able to change the way the gene expresses itself — essentially turning the gene’s ‘volume’ up or down — which would have an effect on obesity.”

Temples teaches pediatrics to graduate students in the family nurse practitioner program at Clemson. She was a fellow in the Summer Genetics Institute at the National Institutes of Health. She researched adolescent obesity at the University of South Carolina and was a research nurse at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. She is the president of the Gamma Mu Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International Nurses Honor Society.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center promotes excellence in nursing and health care globally through credentialing programs. Its board certifying credentialing programs recognize individual nurses in specialty practice areas.