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Epigenetics: the hoops genes jump through

When I was thrown willy-nilly into the cutting-edge world of genetic science and assigned to write a press release about the epigenetics of hypertrophy of the heart, I was a little nervous. Though my fellow science writers, those with the science degrees after their names, told me that “epigenetics is hot right now - hot, hot, hot,” I had a limited understanding of what, exactly, it was.

Needing some help, I turned to a Time magazine article that spelled it out nicely for me:

At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. The good news: scientists are learning to manipulate epigenetic marks in the lab, which means they are developing drugs that treat illness simply by silencing bad genes and jump-starting good ones.

The great hope for ongoing epigenetic research is that with the flick of a biochemical switch, we could tell genes that play a role in many diseases - including cancer, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and many others-to lie dormant. We could, at long last, have a trump card to play against Darwin.

As it turned out, this was the perfect description of what the researchers in my story hope to do. Ching-Pin Chang, MD, PhD, and his lab-mates have discovered an enzyme, Brg1, that plays a key role in the epigenetic underpinnings of the enlargement of the heart. The next step? The development of a drug that could work as a biochemical switch to silence the enzyme, stopping certain types of heart disease.

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