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Epigenetics new role in public health

This blog post by Pam Baker originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 29 January 2019

Epigenetics continues to prove its worth in developing personalized medicine and discovering treatments and cures for serious illnesses such as cancer. Because of these early successes, much of the work with epigenetics today focuses on individual care rather than on public health. But that is changing as researchers look at the broader implications of their findings.

One such researcher is Yvonne Fondufe-Mittendorf, Ph.D., who hails from the University of Kentucky, USA. She is a chromatin biologist who also uses toxicology in her work. Specifically, she is studying chromatin modifications which are manifested epigenetic changes brought about by environmental cues, such as exposure to toxins. Her current interest is in inorganic arsenic which is an environmental toxin responsible for lung cancer and other health threats.

“I see a great need in the Appalachian region, because residents are exposed to contaminants that seep into drinking water due to coal mining activities,” she said in an article on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) website. She also noted that unfiltered well water is a commonly used source of drinking water in the region.

Her research uncovered a model for how long-term, low-dose exposure to inorganic arsenic can turn normal cells cancerous. In essence, inorganic arsenic changes the weaker bindings in a protein called CTCF. It is commonly referred to as a master weaver of a genome since it “wires the genome into a 3D shape.”

Fondufe-Mittendorf’s work is one of the few focused on understanding CTCF bindings and how changes to these effectively rewire the genome and lead to serious diseases.

NIEHS Program Director Fred Tyson, Ph.D said that Fondufe-Mittendorf’s study shows that arsenic can replace zinc in some of these proteins which, in turn, points to a possible cure.

“It is possible that just by administering zinc supplements, we might lessen the effects of inorganic arsenic’s displacement of zinc in regulatory proteins such as CTCF,” Fondufe-Mittendorf said in the article. “This is noninvasive and a very simple way that we can actually help people treat the problems [arsenic] is associated with.”

The realization that cancer can occur from epigenetic changes too, and not just from genetic mutations, has profound implications beyond this region and this toxin. Future studies may reveal the means to prevent numerous cancers and other diseases in entire populations rather than rely on individual treatments after disease occurs.

While there are few studies available now on epigenetic implications in public health, more are underway and interest in this field of applications is growing.  For additional insights on why epigenetics matters in individual and public health, watch this video on the interplay between environment and epigenetics.

Epigenetics new role in public health

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