Science Questions

Can we reduce cancer risk with epigenetics?

Tue, 11th Dec 2012

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Heather Williams asked:

Can we train our phenotype by altering our epigenetics? Could we potentially modulate the expression of genes that are related to an increase cancer risk, for instance our BRCA 1 and 2 genes that cause breast cancer?


Mark -   If I understand the question correctly, is there ways and means by which we can modulate whether a gene turns on or off at a particular time?  In theory, this is possible because the epigenome or these various modifications that control whether a gene gets turned on or off as you’ve been talking about are reversible.  These are not static entities, so in theory, we may be able to fine tune in the future.  We’re not there yet, but we may be able to do this in the future.


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As I understand it, BRCA1 & BRCA2 were discovered because they produce DNA repair proteins; mutated versions of these genes are much less effective at repairing DNA errors than the normal protein, and lead to an increased risk of BReast CAncer.

If you had a "normal" DNA repair gene for BRCA1 & BRCA2, you may be able to use some future epigenetic modification technique to increase the expression of these genes, making DNA repair more efficient, and thus reducing your lifetime chance of cancer (at some cost to the cell in producing more BRCA1 & BRCA2 proteins).

However, if you had a mutated version of BRCA1 or BRCA2, which are less effective at DNA repair, it might be preferable to use some future genetic modification technique to restore normal DNA repair to the cell, rather than:

using epigenetics to increase the expression of ineffective repair genes

or even using epigenetics to reduce the expression of ineffective repair genes.

Using epigenetics to reduce the expression of a gene would be most useful if the mutated gene were dominant, causing damage to the cell, but there was a normal recessive gene on the other chromosome. Turning off the mutated gene would allow the normal gene to carry out its normal function in the cell, restoring health for this cell (or person, if you could treat enough cells). evan_au, Fri, 14th Dec 2012

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