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New study: preventing leukemia at the epigenetic level

This blog post by Pam Baker originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 30 November, 2018.

Scientists have been working with new epigenetic drugs to combat and possibly cure several types of cancer for quite some time now. Much has been learned along the way and some cancer patients are already benefitting from this new class of cellular-level treatments. As promising as this work has been, there is still more life-saving potential to explore and harness. Already new studies suggest more ways to use epigenetics to our advantage. In a recent study, scientists have discovered a new way to use epigenetics to prevent cancer.

Generally speaking, epigenetic drugs work by flipping the “on-off” switches on our genes to essentially rewrite the instructions that cancer or other diseased cells are following. That’s an over-simplification and the science is far more complicated, but it is the basic gist of how these drugs typically work.

A new study finds that dysregulated proteins which read epigenetic marks may also be treatable. The researchers specifically studied dysregulated proteins associated with acute myeloid leukemia, which is a severe and aggressive blood cancer that often proves fatal within weeks or a few short months. Its rapid progression makes it difficult to treat and chemotherapy is the only viable option at the moment. Physicians and patients alike are desperately seeking more effective alternative treatments.

The authors of the study are Professor Paul Brennan and Dr. Oleg Fedorov at the Target Discovery Institute and Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) in Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford in the UK. They point to other studies that show disorders in epigenetic regulation are crucial for certain types of cancer development. Their own study indicates drugs that bind to these specific proteins could prevent cancers on the epigenetic level. While the study focused on leukemia, the implications are that this approach could be taken to successfully prevent other cancers one day too.

The hope in epigenetic drugs is that diseases can be cured before symptoms appear or prevented from happening at all. The subsequent reduction in human suffering and deaths, as well as the reduction in healthcare costs, is why epigenetic research is so crucial.

It’s even more vital in light of the rising number of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Without a new class of treatments to replace ineffectual antibiotics, an ordinary activity like shaving could become deadly. Most surgeries would soon become too dangerous to undergo too, even routine surgeries like pulling a tooth or removing a child’s tonsils.

To get an idea of how important genetic and epigenetic discoveries are in diagnosing diseases and developing new treatments, take a look at this video explaining earlier such work on drug-resistant tuberculosis.

New study: preventing leukemia at the epigenetic level

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