Epigenetics has been a fascination of scientists over the last several years. Researchers have learned that in addition to the genes given to you from dear old mom and dad, there is another set of genes at work in your body, your epigenome. This set of genes is formed throughout your lifespan and is a result of the lifestyle choices you make and those made before you. This picture is mostly easily painted through the observation of identical twins. Identical twins have the exact same DNA, so they should inherit the same genetic predispositions – right? They do, indeed, but how is it possible that one twin ends up with cancer and the other does not? It comes down to the epigenome. The choice to eat right or exercise or smoke or work long hours, etc., all impact the epigenome and researchers have learned, if your parents or grandparents participated in these activities, it can affect you too.
Continued work into this science, medical genetics became a board-certified medical specialty as recently as 1991, has led physicians and researchers to believe that this is the key to predicting and preventing disease, but the technology is not there – yet.
Yes, the technology exists to map your genome and use of this technology has given experts the ability to determine how effectively someone will respond to a drug treatment. And mapping your genome can even predict the likelihood that you will develop a certain disease, particularly inherited diseases, but what they cannot quite grasp is the unwritten code of your epigenome.
A new study, published in the April 2012 issue of Translational Medicine, unveiled continued study of genome mapping on twins. The study showed that without a strong family history that leaves markers of disease on the genome – the odds of predicting something like cancer, accurately, is very low.
Dr. Lynda Chin, head of the department of genomic medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t understand 99.9 percent of the genome is telling us. The predictive value is less until we do.”
Researchers and experts following the study say to be wary if a doctor tells you they can predict your risk of disease, like cancer, from analyzing your genes. Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and other diseases that are the result of a faulty gene can be more readily identified with current technology, but beyond a strong family history, this new technology is only offering a lot of false positives.
More studies are underway because this is the future of preventive health and developing preventive lifestyle plans tailored to each individual, but for now it remains a mystery to be unraveled.