This year, a complete mapping of the human being epigenome ever made has been released. Using massive data analysis, a group of researchers has studied why certain genes turn “off” and “on” in human cells. This could lead to new treatments for a multitude of diseases and could have a really important role in the treatment of cancer.
But… what’s an epigenome?
Some years ago, the being Genome Project found the whole map of genes that make up human DNA, we could say we got the human “source code”. It sounds amazing, and it is, but there still are a lot of things we don’t know about the way human DNA works (plus all the things we don’t understand because we don’t know about their existence yet). The epigenome is one of this tricky things, your DNA is the same in all your cells, but, as differents types of cells perform different jobs inside your body, the part of the genes which is externally “expressed” is different too.
The function of the epigenome is to control the genome (set of all our genes), we could say the genome is the “hard drive” which stores information and the epigenome is the “software” which reads it and chooses what “files” are going to be readen witch ones are not.
Unlike genome, which is the same for all types of cells (of the same organism), the epigenome is dynamic, being different in each type of cell, so each type is specialized in a specific task, such as protecting your body from infections (leukocytes) or conveying nervous impulses (neurons).
How can we “read” epigenome?
The researchers who made the map generated more than two thousand genome-broad datasets! Encompassing a total of 150 billion sequencing reads, equivalent to >3,100-fold treatment of the human genome. Then, they developed device-learn algorithms, sets of operations that can learn from and make predictions about specific data, which might decode these datasets into a situation chart in each cell type and tissue; that’s fascinating!
How can this help to treat diseases as cancer?
Epigenetics are giving researchers new perspectives about cancer, to explain it properly I should start from the beginning: How does cancer appear?
Cells are constantly dividing, and the results of this division are (in most of the cell types) equal to the cell they come from, with exactly the same DNA. When a “son cell” has some genetic anomaly it usually self-destroys so the organism keeps working well, but when that cell does not self-destroy and starts multiplying without control (even if there’s no available space) it causes the apparition of a tumor.
As epigenome controls what genes are turned “on” or “off”, an epigenetic treatment could avoid the described situation or maybe even stop it once it has started.
The treatment of cancer is something that still needs a lot of research, but epigenetic treatments have been proven to be effective against other diseases, by reverting gen siltation (activating specific genes) in mice suffering from the Rett Syndrome researchers achieved to decrease significantly the symptoms mice had before the treatment.