U.S. researchers have for the first time traced the actions of a carcinogen in cooked meat to its complex biological effects in the body and on cancer cells. This contributes to a growing awareness of the role of “epigenetics” in cancer. This term describes how genes and cell behavior can be altered even though DNA sequence is unchanged.
Cancer develops in a complex, multi-step process. Damaged cells are created by various things. This study showed that altering “microRNAs” affects colon cancer formation. These microRNAs are very small factors that do very big things.
A secondary part of this study is the health news about spinach. Scientists found that eating the healthy green could help offset the damaging effects of the carcinogen in question. In tests on animals, spinach cut the incidence of colon tumors almost in half — down to 32% from 58%.
Back to cancer for a moment. Initially, most of us thought that mutated DNA led to uncontrolled cell growth. That’s still true. But epigenetics is starting to be a big focal point. Epigenetics is a technical word, but it encompasses such factors as diet, environmental toxins, and lifestyle. This affects our genes, and affects our cancer risk (among other diseases).
Included here are the microRNAs, which science couldn’t really understand until now. But now we know they influence what areas of DNA get expressed or silenced. This might sound boring, but it is a finding like this that advances our critical knowledge about cancer.
There are hundreds of microRNAs, and when they don’t work right, bad things can happen, including abnormal gene expression, leading to cancer. There is good news supplied in this study by spinach, but it extends far beyond. With epigenetics, we can restore normal cell function by eating right and making other healthy life style choices.
Epigenetics essentially makes every person biologically unique. We are products of not only genetics, but our environment, too. Even identical twins are unique for this reason.
Patient-specific cancer therapy may now be impossible based on the study of epigenetics. Stay tuned.