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article imageEpigenetics: A possible ‘off switch’ for diseases

By Paul Wallis     Oct 6, 2009 in Health
Epigenetics is the study of alterations to genes not related to gene sequence. Epigenetic markers, which are gene functions which can be switched off and on, are now being seen as the potential fix for a range of diseases.
Turning on and off the switches is a known regulator of gene functions. It’s been known for a while how to switch genes on and off, but reading the epigenetic mosaic isn’t easy. You need to understand the “sense” of a gene sequence, before you can apply a context. That’s neither easy nor quick research, so the new findings in epigenetics are a major improvement.
ABC Australia Science gives an example regarding breast cancer:
When researchers compared normal and malignant cells, they found the cancer-fighting gene, P16, had been switched off in the malignant cells through a process called DNA methylation, where molecules are added to the DNA backbone affecting its function.
Now the really good news: ABC says this discovery may reverse the epigenetic changes leading to a range of cancers, according to Professor Susan Clark, who heads the Garvan's (Garvan Institute of Melbourne, an internationally renowned cancer research organization) epigenetics research group.
"With genetics, you can't actually fix it, whereas with an epigenetic change it is potentially reversible," she says. "The dream of every cancer researcher is that one day we will be able to turn off the cancer switch."
What this means is that the methylation process is a diagnostic signal indicating that the gene is dysfunctional. Having detected the problem, doctors can proceed to get the defensive gene working again by reversing the “off” effect of methylation.
That could be as simple as a basic targeted medication. No more months of misery or years of arduous, soul-searing therapy. This doesn’t even need to be an invasive method of treatment, which will get sighs of relief around the world. Non-invasive treatments are one of the primary principles of reducing stress on patients, and a major issue for people undergoing prolonged therapy. The whole process could be replaced by a trip to the pharmacy. At early detection stage, when it’s a matter of just shutting down the problem before it starts, that might be the whole story, too.
The principle of epigenetic switches will also have ramifications for a range of conditions and susceptibilities. Just about everybody is susceptible to something, and it’s looking like epigenetics may be able to do some work on those susceptibilities. It’s possible that people literally get born with genes turned off that should be turned on, and vice versa. Things like birth defects and other serious childhood and adult issues could be a thing of the past.
One of the more startling findings of this research has been that it’s now looking as if many of the unexplained cancer cures may have been the result of some form of epigenetic effect, although "how" remains unknown. Medical science has a very large library of cures that in theory shouldn’t have happened at all, and the epigenetic factor is a legitimate working hypothesis to explain them.
Interesting what a whole new science can do in a few decades or so, isn't it? If you've been around on this planet long enough, you might remember when all this was impossible.
More about Epigenetics, Gene therapy, Epigenetic research
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