Epigenetics Offers Insight Into Possible Cancer Treatments

In 1944, people in The Netherlands entered into what would become known as the Hongerwinter, or hunger winter, a famine created in retribution by the Nazis for resistance activities in the German-occupied nation near the end of World War II.

The Dutch famine, as the incident also is known, caused the deaths of as many as 22,000 people. But because the famine had begun so quickly, with the Nazi blockade of food in November 1944, and ended just as suddenly, with the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, it gave scientists a unique insight into the effects of how genes in the body can be affected, or effectively changed, by turning off or on in response to a variety of factors within the body and in the environment.

For many years, scientists assumed that your genetic makeup, your genome, was like a set of blueprints that determined not only eye and hair color, but also how likely you are to develop diabetes or get certain cancers. But in the 1990s and 2000s, it became clear that it was all much more complicated than that—in fact, many genes could be turned off or on, or expressed, depending on a host of environmental factors, including things such as diet, pollution, climate, etc. This new understanding that your genes can be turned off or on in ways that can be just as significant as changes in your genetic sequence became known as the science of epigenetics.

This was shown by following the babies born during the Hongerwinter throughout their lives. Researchers found that the famine had turned off certain genes in the children, and the genes were silent throughout their lives. The effects were dramatic—children born during this period developed cardiovascular disease, obesity and schizophrenia at higher levels. In general, they lived lives that were much shorter than people born in the Netherlands outside of this period, passing away at an average of 68 years of age.

That study was just one more indication that that epigenetics, if better understood, could be a powerful tool, especially in a too-familiar situation where gene expression appears to go haywire: in cancer.

Emily Dykhuizen is an associate professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Purdue University who is looking to use a bit of biochemical jiu-jitsu to use epigenetics to flip one of cancer’s evil tricks into an advantage for the patient.

“Day-to-day we work on very specific proteins that regulate the genome. We’re trying to understand how these genes are regulated and to find ways eventually to regulate them with drugs or other therapies,” she says.


To find out more about this groundbreaking research click HERE!