In a recent study, a group of scientists obtained findings that could lead to a new approach to treating allergies. Instead of looking at the genes of their test subjects, they looked at something “above” the genome. Here we reach the field of Epigenetics.
Let us first define “Epigenetics” as the study on the activity and regulation of genes. In the world of Epigenetics, one can think of the epigenome as the on-off switch for the expression of genes. In terms of the study lead by Professors William Cookson and Miriam Moffatt, they focus on genes that trigger Asthma in patients. As Asthma cannot be ‘cured’, is there a way to shut down the genes that cause it?

The research team searched for a correlation between Asthma-causing antibodies and low methylation levels. Methylation is the process by which a methyl group attaches to certain genes in order to regulate their activity. Scientists already know that people with asthma have higher levels of an antibody called “Immunoglobin E” (IgE). This antibody is involved in triggering the symptoms of asthma. It is already known that genes responsible for producing IgE are hyperactive in asthma patients. The question became whether methylation had something to do with it. So to answer this question, the researchers obtained volunteers with asthma, but with varying IgE levels. The group found significant results surrounding lower levels of methylation with the patients that had higher levels of IgE than those with lower levels of IgE in their blood. This suggests that the lower methyl levels on certain genes evokes an overactivity of IgE producing genes.

After reading the article myself, I wonder if asthma patients could find ways to have higher methyl levels in their body to shut down the overactive IgE-producing genes. Perhaps they could consume a methyl rich diet? I guess it’s not that simple. Further research should obviously go into epigenetics, since I feel it is a newly discovered field. Anyways, here are the head scientists reactions to the experiments:

Professor Moffatt: “The genes we identified represent new potential drug targets for allergic diseases as well as biomarkers that may predict which patients will respond to existing expensive therapies.”

Professor Cookson: “Our pioneering approach, using epigenetics, allowed us to obtain insights that we weren’t able to get from traditional genetics. It isn’t just the genetic code that can influence disease and DNA sequencing can only take you so far. Our study shows that modifications on top of the DNA that control how genes are read may be even more important.”

This article (and the entire study of Epigenetics) shows how scientific knowledge and thought is always changing. Before recent research showing a link between one’s living environment and their genetic activity came along, scientists widely believed that one only passes down inherited genes to their offspring. This potentially makes scientists now look twice at Lamarck and Darwin’s theories of evolution. Due to the new research conducted on Epigenetics, Lamarck’s (originally rejected) theory of how an animal’s environment will affect that animal’s offspring can now be regarded in a whole new light.

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