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MAGAZINE / Jan-Feb 2008 / Epigenetics: A New Search Begins

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Epigenetics: A New Search Begins

By Angela Medieros, Staff Writer 
(Page 2 of 2)

Epigenetics: A New Search Begins

Dr. Randy Jirtle is a leader in the research of epigenetics as well.  His study involved obesity genes in mice, among other factors, like different colored fur (from the same litter).  Dr. Jirtle’s work included dietary changes in the parent mice to create gene/epigene changes in offspring. 

To sum it up, he states that we are not only what we eat, but also what our parents and even grandparents ate.  Ancestral heritage and dietary or environmental changes affect generations.   The “mice of a different color” study offers further insight into heredity, and the benefits of making changes early on.  This beats complaining that you have your mother’s hips, and nothing will change that.  It also offers hope that disease processes might lead you to be more aware of possible health risks, but that nothing is set in stone.

Yet, when it comes to disease processes like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other conditions, it is worth looking at and supporting research in fields like epigenetics for treatment and control.

How one identical twin can develop Alzheimer’s while the other lives a perfectly normal life may have to do with environmental factors and lifestyle.  However, epigenetics seeks to find deeper answers through epigenomes. 

Researchers are developing medications to change the “light switch effect” that occurs in some diseases.  Some medications may switch a disease process “on”, while others may flip the switch “closed.” For example, azacitidine (the generic, not brand name) was approved by the FDA to treat a blood disease that can morph into leukemia.  It was found that this medication switched on certain genes that were “marked,” or affected by methylation.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center conducted a study on Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a type of leukemia that is considered “incurable.”  Through administration of medication designed to (as Dr Issa puts it) “use diplomacy,” the leukemia of more than one patient went into remission.  Patients report far less side effects with epigenetic therapy, which offers good news in terms of an alternative to chemotherapy and radiation.  Approximately 50 percent of the clinical trial patients went into remission.

Studies in epigenetics include mental health behaviors.  We already know that some individuals fail to thrive because they are isolated or badly treated.  It’s seen in the animal world, and with children who are essentially non-nurtured by parents.  What epigenetics shows us is that nurturing behavior can help activate portions of the DNA that will keep the individual healthy, mentally as well as physically.

Opponents of stem cell research can also look toward information found on NOVAScience’s website through www.pbs.org.  Rather than cloning humans, or using embryos of any kind, scientists are looking toward a way to create a cell that would divide, but have no characteristics to develop into a human.  To do this, an egg from a healthy ovary would be used, “fertilized” with DNA from a skin cell from the patient.  Division occurs, allowing research to be done using the exact DNA, but with far less ethical implications that are attached to stem cell research.

Caregivers and interested parties would do well to consider that these options may already be able to help family members stricken with illness.  At the very least, it provides hope for future generations, and possible comfort that while too much egg salad may give you “Mom’s hips,” epigenetic therapies can alter or prevent getting anything more serious.

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