The latest discoveries in science are overturning a century’s worth of scientific belief about genetics, evolution and the backbone of modern biology. As Bruce Lipton has made famous, the new science of epigenetics has been devoted to the study of how we are shaped not from within, but largely by forces outside ourselves, a subtle mix of environmental influence on our biology, particularly the expression of our genes.
The number of papers published on epigenetics has now exploded 40-fold, particularly those concerning inheritable diseases. At the forefront of this research is a team at McGill University in Montreal, led by Moshe Szyf, an Israeli-born professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Szyf’s lab owns five patents on DNA products and one patent pending, all for DNA formulations that he hopes will change the course of medical history. He believes that, within the human epigenome, he will find the cure for cancer, which, in his view, has to do with manipulating the methylation process—the coating of DNA—so that the on-switch for cancerous genes gets turned off permanently.
Szyf has discovered that a major hallmark of cancer is an aberration in methylation patterns, so that genes needed for rapid cell growth, invasion and metastasis aren’t kept in check. Although other researchers think the issue has mostly to do with too much methylation around a gene, Szyf believes the problem has to do with both too much and too few; too much methylation in breast cancer, for instance, silences genes necessary to regulate cell growth, and too little tends to activate genes involved in rapid metastasis.
Szyf’s patents cover products that will regulate the methylation process in individuals with cancer, a process he’s been able to demonstrate in human cancer cell lines in the lab.
Reversable through life
Szyf’s work defies current thinking about epigenetics. Many scientists exploring this new field had first assumed that epigenetic changes operated a bit like the butterfly effect in chaos theory, with its sensitive dependence on initial conditions; small changes occurring early on in your environment when you are a baby will produce large changes in genetic expression, but then remain constant through life.
Szyf’s work in the laboratory decisively demonstrates otherwise.
In a series of studies on animals, he showed that numerous kinds of stress responses deliberately ‘programmed’ into a variety of animals by one set of conditions early in life could be deprogrammed out of the organism by changing the conditions later in life.
In one study, Szyf was able to reverse abnormalities in baby rats caused by unhealthy mothering by handing the rat pups to foster mothers, who treated them normally. Epigenetic conditions now appear to be fluid, wholly reversible in adulthood.
A disease like breast cancer may also have its genesis in the Bond between our inner and outer worlds, and not exclusively within our genes. Of all forms of cancer, a family history of breast cancer is usually assumed to be one of the most clearly marked genetic indications that a woman is likely to develop the disease. Increasingly, doctors have counseled healthy women with a certain gene to undergo a single or double mastectomy to prevent the development of breast cancer.
Several epidemiologists at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, questioned this practice after examining data from one of the most controversial studies of women in American history, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
One of the largest studies to follow women for several decades, the WHI was expected to confirm the safety and benefits of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), among other treatments and practices.
Five years into the study of hormone replacement, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board of the WHI shocked the world by calling an abrupt halt to the use of HRT when it became apparent that the 16,000 participants who were taking hormones had an increased risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, stroke, and heart disease.
For the Rochester scientists, the WHI represented a goldmine of data for comparing hereditary and environmentally induced cancer. When they combed through the details of the women taking part in the WHI study who had developed breast cancer, they naturally assumed that they would find a higher incidence of cancer among those who had a family history of the disease.
However, the evidence showed a similar incidence of cancer among those taking HRT, whether or not they had breast cancer in their genetic history. The particulars of a woman’s genetic makeup or a family history of cancer appeared to have nothing to do with it. In this case, the environmental stressor — artificial hormones taken regularly — was the major trigger.
Relationships and our genes
Even the quality of our social relationships has the same capacity to affect genetic expression. Moshe Szyf examined and compared the brains of suicide victims deliberately chosen for having had an abusive or neglectful childhood with those of patients who had died from ordinary causes. Although the genetic sequence was identical in both sets of brains, fascinating differences appeared in the epigenetic markings of the genes within the brains of those who had committed suicide.
Although Szyf could not categorically conclude that the abuse in childhood definitely caused both the epigenetic markers and ultimately the suicidal depression, the circumstantial evidence was compelling.
His findings were also echoed in recent work at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto on patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The patients were found to have alterations in the outer casing of neural DNA, again strongly suggesting an environmental cause of the mental illness, and not inherited genetic history.
Epigenetics and adaptive evolution display something remarkable about how we take physical form. The relationship between a living thing and its environment is a two-way, ongoing conversation.
Although much of that conversation is set down early in our lives, it is dynamic, fluid, even reversible — a relationship for life. We are a balance of internal and external influence, early and late programming, constantly transformed by the influence of every moment.