Tuesday, January 19, 2010

EPIGENETICS

Say hello to a relatively new word, new science that's telling us we can control our destiny, telling me:

"It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

This post isn't about the movie, "Invictus," or the poem by William Ernest Henley that inspired Nelson Mandela. The last verse of the poem (quoted above) inspired me when I was very young, to vow I'd be a dancer till "death do me part."

I was fighting the fact that my parents didn't think I should be a dancer because my body, my mind, my temperament weren't suited for athleticism.

Well, cheer up – would-be Olympic Athlete, if you're too short, too skinny. Cheer up and go for it, if you're a would-be Beatle (or Beethoven), dreaming of a career in music.

Epigenetics is being discussed, accepted as factual, and being studied by John Hopkins Website, Duke University's Department of Medicine, University of Utah scientists, Tuft University biochemists, University College London geneticists, University of Bristol's epidemiologists, Washington State University's molecular biologists, and scientists at Salk Institute's Epigenome Center.

Here's what I've garnered from the experts, news sources, and various websites that quoted and reported in great detail -- what the experts have said.

Oncologists have seen some success in using epigenetics against leukemia, bone-marrow cancer and blood disorders. The FDA approved an epigenetic drug in 2004. Epigenetics is in Science News, The Washington Post, and The Quarterly Review of Biology in Tel Aviv. The National Institute of Health (NIH), has given the Epigenome Center a $190 million dollar grant.

Wow -- so it's established, I thought after I read quickly for about an hour -- so is it possible to be what you want to be?

I learned that varying traits in us are controlled by molecules that sit atop our DNA. The "epigenome" tells genes when to turn on and off. "Epi " mean on top. "Genome" is all of the genetic information, "the entire genetic complement, all of the hereditary material possessed by an organism."

Gee, does that mean our fate isn't heredity, and there are things we can do to change it?

"Epigenetic therapy is inexact," said one of the experts. There is already evidence that lifestyle choices, like smoking and eating too much, can change the epigenetic marks that cause the genes for obesity to express themselves too strongly, and the genes for longevity to express themselves too weakly.

There's evidence, apparently, that those same hurtful behaviors can also predispose your kids — before they are even conceived — to disease and early death.

Right now, scientists are learning to manipulate epigenetic marks in the lab. They're developing drugs that treat illness simply by silencing bad genes and jump-starting good ones.

So what are these guys talking about fixing, helping, changing -- in terms of your life and mine?

I learned that epigenetics will affect autism, longevity, Alzheimer's, infertility, cancer, and a propensity for obesity, and diabetes. When tumor-suppressing genes aren't doing their job, due to a genetic mutation (it's called"hypermethylation"), or cancer cells replicate uncontrollably -- by manipulating the epigenetic marks, doctors can get tumor-suppressing genes to work again.

Okay, but I couldn't help wondering --will those epigenetic changes will be permanent?

The answer is -- epigenetics doesn't change DNA. It isn't evolution when you suppress epigenomes. Right now the Epigenome Center has "mapped" epigenomes of two cell types (embryonic stem cell and a basic cell called fibroblast). There are at least 210 cell types in the human body — and possibly far more, according to Professor Joseph Ecker, the Salk biologist, who's working on the epigenome maps. Ecker calls the $190 million grant from NIH "peanuts," compared with the probable huge cost, of figuring out what all the epigenetic marks are and how they work together.

Okay, so when will all this work be done? Will epigentics affect me and my family?

David Shenk, a highly respected, accredited science writer, has a new book called, "The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong." (It will be his sixth book on related subjects -- it's being published by Doubleday this coming March.)

Shenk says epigenetics is helping usher in a "new paradigm" that "reveals how bankrupt the phrase 'nature versus nurture' really is."

He calls epigenetics "perhaps the most important discovery in the science of heredity since the gene."

So that's why I've written this post -- epigenetics is something hopeful and positive that's happening now (along with ups and downs in Health Care) that will affect us and help us all.

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