By Angela Medieros, Staff Writer
Caregivers have watched their loved ones, and
the changes in them, wondering if these same characteristics have
been passed on to them. Epigenetics, a term around for some time,
is the study of traits that are passed without a change in the DNA
Jargon abounds in the medical field.
“Methylation of genes,” “cytocysteines,” and other words that
require several trips to the dictionary to get to the next part of
the sentence complicate understanding medical concepts.
What these terms can mean to caregivers,
especially in the field of epigenetics, is what can be done to treat
syndromes by shutting on or off different characteristics within the
In 2002, Science Daily reported that an enzyme
was found to “silence” or shut off a particular gene. Some cancers
hold certain traits that, when activated, create a dangerous army to
attack the body. By silencing or shutting off the trait, the army
of deadly cells is kept at bay.
When we go back to the term “methylation,” we
can substitute “marker” in its place. The enzyme discussed in
Science Daily is an example of an enzyme that “marks” which gene it
encounters. This marker can keep cancers that are normally
non-aggressive in that state. Losing the marker changes the
behavioral characteristic of the cancer cell, allowing it to become
aggressive and move out of control. Cells can also be “marked” or
“tagged,” creating adverse health conditions.
Because of epigenetics, it has been possible to
study how genes passed from parent to child, and even shared between
identical twins, can allow different diseases to spring from this
“unchanged” DNA. However, even DNA changes somewhat in identical
twins. In a study done on identical twins at the Spanish National
Cancer Research Center in Madrid, Spain (2005), blood samples were
drawn from forty pairs of identical twins of varying ages (3-74).
Through the magic of science, the blood was spun
down and separated, until the cotton candy-like DNA was left. The
DNA was amplified until the genes became detectable.
In an interesting twist of DNA destiny, when the
gene “slices” from twins were laid upon one another, it was found
that there was more deviation in the older groups of twins.
Lifestyle, habits, and environmental factors change greatly as we
mature and expand our interests, tastes, and
world experience. In our youth, there is generally more control
over where we go and the things we consume, and are exposed to.
Looking back at the 1960’s movie “The Graduate,”
one of the characters says the future of the world is summed up in
one word: plastics. Currently, the amount of plastics in our
society has expanded beyond anything the 60s filmmakers or society
could have imagined. There’s now possible evidence that plastic can
change the ability of the “marker” to label the cell, which may be
connected to obesity. Studies haven’t rubber stamped the
information to the point where we’ve removed plastics, but it poses
an interesting question on the environment affecting our bodies.
Before we go dumping our department store
plastic ware, blaming our weight on it, we need to take a closer
look at all aspects of our lifestyles. Where obesity is concerned,
it’s also what goes in our mouth as well as the tools we use to put
those things in it.
Vitamins, minerals, the additives in the foods
we eat affect us to the cellular level. However, when we begin
looking for answers on “what does what,” we can find conflict in not
only advertising, but research. What then? We can rely on our
family doctors to help us sort out this information, and in our own
searching, consider the sources.
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.