You must have heard about Precision Medicine and its potential to prevent and treat complex, chronic conditions. What you may not know is that the Precision Medicine movement is currently very focused on genetic sequences, specifically understanding and targeting DNA sequence alterations (i.e. mutations) that result in disease development.
But did you know that there is much more than just the sequence of your DNA that influences disease development? Enter epigenetics.
The New Buzz Word – Epigenetics
Our DNA sequences are incredibly large – if we laid out each of the molecules that makes up our DNA in a row, they would cover a distance of around 2 meters. To store and make sense of this genetic information, our cells organize DNA into tiny, complex and tightly regulated structures. Epigenetics, in simple terms, is this structure of our DNA. Changes in epigenetics (i.e., changes in the way our DNA is packaged) can modify which genes are activated and silenced without altering our DNA sequence.
Genetics vs Epigenetics
Similar to genetic mutations, epigenetic changes occur as the result of environmental and lifestyle factors. They can be inherited and passed down through generations, and epigenetic changes can also contribute to complex diseases like high blood pressure.
Unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are not captured by genetic sequencing, and our understanding of how epigenetic modifications contribute to disease and response to treatment is still in its infancy.
Epigenetics to genetics is what software is to hardware. We can’t truly understand a disease and its treatment implications without also taking into consideration the influence of epigenetics.
In the past few decades, scientists have have made great strides in understanding types of epigenetic regulations and how they affect DNA. We are now in an exciting era of epigenetic profiling – the comprehensive analyses of all epigenetic markers in a disease on a near genome scale. It is hoped that this information, in tandem with genetic profiling, can create a powerful approach to understanding the development and heritability of chronic conditions like high blood pressure, and lead to better prevention and treatment strategies.
Currently, there are no FDA approved epigenetic tests on the market. But many studies are underway to identify and validate epigenetic markers that will be used for early disease detection, diagnoses, prognoses and treatment response prediction.
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