Thursday, 12 July 2012

Epigenetics at the Babraham Institute

The Babraham Institute were part of the the Royal Society's Summer Exhibition recently, in which they described the work they are undertaking in the field of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of processes where molecules bond to specific sites in a persons DNA, thus changing the way the DNA code is interpreted by the cell (but not the structure of the DNA itself). These changes can be carried through the process of cell division, so daughter cellls may have the same modifications as their parents.

These processes can have profound effects on a persons biology. For example, it is modifications like this that allow cells to specialize during human development (e.g. into muscle, brain or lung tissues)

Also, we are particularly susceptible to epigenetic changes while developing in the womb. For example malnourishment during the first trimester of pregnancy increases the risk of diabetes and obesiity in adult life. This is because epigenetic changes to parts of the DNA makes cells respond as if they are in a "famine" environment, even if food is abundant (see here for an example)

Animal testing suggests that these modifications may even be transmittable to their offspring, who may themselvs show increased susceptibility to disease.

Thus the liklihood of a person suffering some conditions may be increased by the environment that their grandmother was living in when she was carrying the persons mother!

Research has shown that epigenetic changes are potentially reversible and drugs are being developed that aim to reverse the specific accululated epigenetic changes implicted in cancer, diabetes and other chronic health problems.

Another avenue of research is looking at turning ordinary skin cells into stem cells by removing the epigenetic changes that make the specialised, the aim being to use these stem cells to grow new tissues or ergans to replace those that have been damaged by disease.

As with all the exhibitors at the exhibition, the team at the Babraham stand were very friendly and keen to explain (in simple English) what they were working on.

DNA is not your only Destiny.   .    . Luke

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