Webinar: Epigenetic Changes and CFS: Identifying the Culprit
The CFIDS Association of America has conducted a series of webinars covering various topics of interest to the CFS/ME community. In this webinar, the 6th in the series, Dr. Patrick McGowan, from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, talks about his research on epigenetics. Epigenetics is currently a "hot topic" in research, and is drawing an eager young group of researchers, which makes it an ideal field of study for investigating the underpinnings of complex illnesses like CFS/ME.
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of the factors that affect the way your genes work. Dr. McGowan used a computer analogy to explain the difference between genetics and epigenetics: genes are the hardware, and epigenetics are the software. Unlike genes, epigenetic factors are highly variable, even among identical twins, because epigenetics are influenced by the environment.
How do epigenetics influence the development of disease?
Epigenetic factors are influenced by the environment, which means they can provide extremely important clues to the development of disease. For example, in twin studies, identical twins may not develop the same illness, or may develop it at different times. If scientists can figure out what the epigenetic changes are in those twins, they may be able to identify how the disease developed.
How can epigenetics be used to treat disease?
Epigenetic changes are reversible. That means that drugs can be developed to shift the epigenetic factors which have caused a disease. Because this is a new field, there is very little data about the effects of epigenetic altering drugs on humans, but clinical studies are underway on cancer, epilepsy and the effects of anti-depressants taken by mohers during pregnancy on their future children.
Do other environmental factors affect epigenetics, such as diet?
Diet can infuence epigenetics. For example, a diet high in fat can alter epigenetic factors. DNA methylation, which is a relatively stable gene marker, is also affected by diet, particularly by folate.
What are the preliminary observations of the CFS study?
Immune cell function may be altered in CFS, not just in function, but in their ratios
Epigenetic changes may occur in genes involved in the immune system, particularly in T cells
CFS may alter the normal complement of immune cells
The data suggest that CFS may have an epigenetic component in the blood
Will epigenetics lead to a cure for CFS/ME?
The field is very new, so it is too early to say where epigenetics may lead. An additional problem is that many of the drugs used to alter epigenetic factors are "dirty drugs," that is they have widespread effects that may alter other epigenetic factors, potentially causing harm (e.g. tumors). However, there is also great potential for treatment, especially for an illness like CFS/ME. Through its exploration of epigenetic factors in patients with CFS/ME, Dr. McGowan's group is beginning to explore that potential.