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