School of Public Health
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Wilfried J.J. Karmaus
 Wilfried J.J. Karmaus
Wilfried J.J. Karmaus, MD, Dr. Med., MPH
Professor of Epidemiology
Contact information:
Phone: 901-678-2491
Robison Hall 301


  • MPH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Dr. Med., University of Hamburg
  • MD, University of Hamburg

Research Interests:

  • Environmental exposures and health outcomes
  • Maternal and child health
  • Asthma, allergy, eczema, obesity
  • Epigenetics

Wilfried Karmaus – Thinker, Dreamer, Doer


Dr. Wilfried Karmaus is an epidemiologist, trained as a physician in Germany and as an epidemiologist at UNC in Chapel Hill, NC. His interest covers environmental exposures and health outcomes 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) with emphasis on 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. This may results in changes of gene and protein expression or in production of altered proteins (spliced variants). 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 alone. In a number of instances, disease risks are increased 4- to 40-fold. Hence, epigenetics has a great promise and can ultimately lead to improved prevention and therapy. Dr. Karmaus’ idea is to identify epigenetic patterns (due to past exposures in current 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. Altering epigenetically remodeled genomes to lower disease susceptibility may involve diet, behavior, and changes in the social, physical, or biological environment. However, this re-setting may be only possible in specific life-phases.


The data of the studies described below (for instance genome-wide DNA methylation and multiple genes in the IOW study) is rich in information 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. That is to reverse the adverse epigenetic changes imposed on the genome by previous exposures and in previous generations. Thereby the health of the current generation, and - due to the inheritance - also the health of future generations will be improved.


Dr. Karmaus is currently working on five studies, which offer ample opportunities for projects for graduate students and interested colleagues:

  • 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) and increases the risk of obesity in mothers and grandchildren.
  • 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 (CRDF), PI: Karmaus. 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 mentees (graduate students and post-docs) 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 public health in academia, government, or industry.

For publications in PubMed see:

SPH 2014 Magazine
True Blue Goes Green 2013 Video
New SPH Video
What Students Are Saying

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