How exactly does your DNA make you who you are?
It's because of epigenetics that identical twins can actually look different and develop different diseases.
Just as software developers don't write apps out of ones and zeros, the interesting parts of the human genome aren't written merely in As, Ts, Cs and Gs. Yes, these are the fundamental letters that make up our DNA and encode the proteins that make our cells function, but the story doesn't end there.
Our cells possess amazing abilities, like eating invading bacteria or patching over a wound, and these abilities require the coordinated action of hundreds, if not thousands, of proteins. Epigenetics, the study of gene expression, examines how multiple genes work at once to make these biological processes happen.
It's because of epigenetics that identical twins – who possess identical DNA -- can actually look different and develop different diseases. Their environments may influence the expression of their genes in unique ways. For example, a research study in mice found that maternal exposure to a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) resulted in drastic differences between genetically identical offspring. BPA exposure increased the likelihood that a certain gene was turned on, which led to the birth of yellow mice who were prone to obesity. Their genetically identical siblings who were not exposed to BPA were thinner and born with brown fur.
These three mice are genetically identical. Epigenetic differences, however, result in vastly different phenotypes.
(© 1994 Nature Publishing Group, Duhl, D.)
This famous mouse experiment is just one example of how epigenetics may transform medicine in the coming years. By studying the way genes are turned on and off, and maybe even making those changes ourselves, scientists are beginning to approach diseases like cancer in a completely new way.
With few exceptions, most of the 1 trillion cells that make up your body contain the same DNA instructions as all the others. How does each cell in your body know what it is and what it has to do? One of the answers appears to lie in epigenetic regulation. Just as everyone at a company may have access to all the same files on the office Dropbox, the accountants will put different files on their desktop than the lawyers do.
Our cells prioritize DNA sequences in the same way, even storing entire chromosomes that aren't needed along the wall of the nucleus, while keeping important pieces of DNA in the center, where it is most accessible to be read and used. One of the ways our cells prioritize certain DNA sequences is through methylation, a process that inactivates large regions of genes without editing the underlying "file" itself.
As we learn more about epigenetics, we gain more opportunities to develop therapeutics for a broad range of human conditions, from cancer to metabolic disorders. Though there have not been any clinical applications of epigenetics to immune or metabolic diseases yet, cancer is one of the leading areas, with promising initial successes.
One of the challenges of cancer treatments is that different patients may respond positively or negatively to the same treatment. With knowledge of epigenetics, however, doctors could conduct diagnostic tests to identify a patient's specific epigenetic profile and determine the best treatment for him or her. Already, commercial kits are available that help doctors screen glioma patients for an epigenetic biomarker called MGMT, because patients with this biomarker have shown high rates of success with certain kinds of treatments.
Other epigenetic advances go beyond personalized screening to treatments targeting the mechanism of disease. Some epigenetic drugs turn on genes that help suppress tumors, while others turn on genes that reveal the identity of tumor cells to the immune system, allowing it to attack cancerous cells.
Direct, targeted control of your epigenome could allow doctors to reprogram cancerous or aging cells.
The study of epigenetics has also been fundamental to the field of aging research. The older you get, the more methylation marks your DNA carries, and this has led to the distinction between biological aging, or the state of your cells, and chronological aging, or how old you actually are.
Just as our DNA can get miscopied and accumulate mutations, errors in DNA methylation can lead to so-called "epimutations". One of the big hypotheses in aging research today is that the accumulation of these random epimutations over time is responsible for what we perceive as aging.
Studies thus far have been correlative - looking at several hundred sites of epigenetic modifications in a person's cell, scientists can now roughly discern the age of that person. The next set of advances in the field will come from learning what these epigenetic changes individually do by themselves, and if certain methylations are correlated with cellular aging. General diagnostic terms like "aging" could be replaced with "abnormal methylation at these specific locations," which would also open the door to new therapeutic targets.
Direct, targeted control of your epigenome could allow doctors to reprogram cancerous or aging cells. While this type of genetic surgery is not feasible just yet, current research is bringing that possibility closer. The Cas9 protein of genome-editing CRISPR/Cas9 fame has been fused with epigenome modifying enzymes to target epigenetic modifications to specific DNA sequences.
A therapeutic of this type could theoretically undo a harmful DNA methylation, but would also be competing with the cell's native machinery responsible for controlling this process. One potential approach around this problem involves making beneficial synthetic changes to the epigenome that our cells do not have the capacity to undo.
Also fueling this frontier is a new approach to understanding disease itself. Scientists and doctors are now moving beyond the "one defective gene = one disease" paradigm. Because lots of diseases are caused by multiple genes going haywire, epigenetic therapies could hold the key to new types of treatments by targeting multiple defective genes at once.
Scientists are still discovering which epigenetic modifications are responsible for particular diseases, and engineers are building new tools for epigenome editing. Given the proliferation of work in these fields within the last 10 years, we may see epigenetic therapeutics emerging within the next couple of decades.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”