/ Jan-Feb 2008
/ Epigenetics: A New Search Begins
By Angela Medieros, Staff Writer
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
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
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.