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Epigenetics: Genes and their connection to disease

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by Barbara Walz, RN, BSN, CDE | Jan 26, 2017

I read an interesting article the other day in the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) magazine which publishes information on their various departmental successes.

The article by Will Sansom explained epigenetics and its role in our lives; I had never even heard of epigenetics so I decided to read more. 

As we know, our genes are the blueprints of our lives – they determine our height, the color of our hair, and even if we will have freckles. They also determine our health and how we respond to illness. Researchers have identified some diseases that can be tracked to defects in our genes, but this does not hold true all the time. Even brothers and sisters with very similar genetics can have significantly different health outcomes. Researchers are looking at why this happens.

A new area of science, called epigenetics may offer an answer. Researchers at UTHSC are examining whether an epigenetic link exists between cancer and diabetes – two of our most common diseases. Epigenetics is the study of biological processes that turn our genes on and off without altering the actual genetic code. Things that may affect these epigenetic changes are: environment, what we eat, aging, stress, and other factors. Researchers are trying to determine how to best intervene and prevent the epigenetic impact.

A professor of molecular medicine at UTHSC is investigating if these epigenetic changes might be reversible. The significance of this would be that some of the most devastating diseases such as cancer and diabetes, would not just be halted but could be reversed. This researcher is looking at the possibility of epigenetic reprogramming which has the potential to stop the undesirable biological processes that promote cancer and/or diabetes. It is exciting to think of the positive impact this could have on the thousands of people around the world suffering from effects of these two diseases. 

It is known in the medical community that there is a close association between diabetes and cancer. Studies have shown that impaired metabolism, a hallmark of diabetes and obesity, plays an important part in the development of cancer and its progression. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 20 percent of cancer deaths are related to obesity. This UTHSC researcher is examining whether pro-cancer proteins and metabolic pathways may have a defect which result in disease. The goal is to regulate these proteins and possibly reverse the abnormal situation to help the body return to its normal state. It is also hoped that epigenetic reprogramming would eliminate drug resistance in patients who do not respond to current therapies. This would certainly benefit those patients who are resistant to diabetes and cancer drugs. 

I think this is a fascinating topic – one with which I am very unfamiliar. I have several colleagues who are molecular biologists and they have a language all their own. I often wonder what they talk about at the dinner table after work, but I am very glad that someone understands this and is working toward helping us to help our patients with diabetes or cancer. 

I hope you are having a wonderful New Year. We have great things ahead of us!


Barbara WalzAbout the Author

Barbara Walz is an RN, BSN and has been a certified diabetes educator since 1986. Since 2000, Barbara has coordinated a multi-site diabetes study examining the macro-vascular effects of diabetes at the South Texas Veterans’ Healthcare System under the supervision of Dr. Ralph DeFronzo.

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