Breathing easier through epigenetic research

Can the environment affect our genes? According to a trio of researchers at UBC it can, and it does.

Their respective studies in respiratory disease epigenetics have helped make the university a leader in this emerging field, which considers the relationship between our environment and our genes. How we live can, in fact, alter our gene expression in a way that may affect the development of cancer, asthma or neurodegenerative diseases.

Dr. Michael Kobor, a professor at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics, and the Canada Research Chair in Social Epigenetics, wants to understand how the environment affects the packaging process of DNA (each of our tiny cells contains a DNA strand long enough to stretch more than two metres). To that end, his lab is working with faculties across campus and colleagues around the world to determine how the environment—including socio-economic status—plays a role in gene expression and affects conditions such as fetal alcohol syndrome, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Other asthma-related epigenetics research includes Dr. Denise Daley’s investigation of whether parents’ smoking habits trigger genetic changes in their offspring.

Daley, Canada Research Chair in Genetic Epidemiology of Common Complex Diseases, and her team are looking for a type of genetic alteration known as “methylation”—that is, when a carbon and hydrogen compound latches onto part of the DNA and modifies how that cell develops and functions. Their goal is twofold: to prove methylation triggers a cascade of consequences that lead to childhood asthma and/or allergies, and to determine when those changes are triggered.

Then there is research that builds on a previous study, which demonstrated that breathing in diluted and aged diesel exhaust may affect about 400 genes and lead to fundamental health-related changes in the body.

Dr. Chris Carlsten of UBC’s division of Respiratory Medicine, and Chair in Occupational and Environmental Lung Disease, led the inquiry. Volunteers were placed in a polycarbonate-enclosed booth about the size of a standard bathroom and made to breathe in air-pollutant fumes that were equivalent to driving along a highway in Beijing, or working in a busy port or industrial site on a hot and windless day.

Now Carlsten’s team is taking the next step and studying how these changes may be translated to health issues, even when there are no obvious symptoms.

“Usually when we look at the effects of air pollution, we measure things that are clinically obvious—air flow, blood pressure, heart rhythm,” says Carlsten. “But asthma, higher blood pressure or arrhythmia might relate to the gradual accumulation of epigenetic changes. So we’ve revealed a window into how these long-term problems may arise. We’re looking at changes ‘deep under the hood.’”

And that just might allow us all to breathe easier.

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