It never ceases to amaze me how much money is spent looking for the genetic “answer” to many types of cancer. There is nary a medical journal that does not have at least one article looking for genetic factors for chronic diseases. With all of this research, what have we found?
Very little. We are always looking for that single genetic uniqueness (commonly referred to as “SNPs,” or single nucleotide polymorphisms) that is tied to a single disease. Unlike genetic conditions like phenylketonuria (PKU) or Tay-Sachs, chronic diseases are NOT genetic. That’s not to say that genes don’t play a role, but the chronic diseaseas we see today are multifactorial and cut across hundreds of genes. I can’t begin to guess how many millions of dollars are spent trying to determine if this SNP or that SNP are related to diabetes or breast cancer or heart disease. Some find a risk, but this is always a very small increased risk.
Personally, I think the reason so much money is spent on these types of studies is to hopefully identify SNPs that correlate with some degree of risk. This way drug companies can produce a “personalized” drug to “treat” that SNP and save the day. This would likely be at a very high price tag.
So, what does all this mean? It means that looking at genetic uniqueness that contribute to chronic disease is not likely to pay off. It means that factors that do play a role in the “genetic” contribution to chronic diseases likely do so across tens if not hundreds of genes–affecting them all negatively and resulting in the expression of the disease. In other words, the indole-3carbinol in that broccoli you hopefully just ate will find it’s way to hundreds of portions of your DNA and coat them in protective arms. Worse, that Value Meal you just pounded down on your stressful drive home in rush hour traffic will send a toxic message to these same hundreds of genes, turning on the potential for cancer and heart disease.
A mutation occurs when DNA is damage. DNA mutations, if not properly repaired by the body, can result in cancer. And certainly this is a factor in many cases of cancer. However, the change to a way a gene is expressed without changing the DNA sequence itself is called epigenetic modification. “Epi” meaning around. Genes can change the way they are expressed based on how they are treated. I may very well have the DNA for a full head of hair, but this is obviously not being expressed at this current moment (or, likely, any moment in the future, either…).
This particular review article looks at the contribution of epigenetic modification to prostate cancer and reviews different compounds that are well known to positively impact epigenetic modification. This means that compounds like folate, vitamin B-12, selenium, and zinc as well as phytochemicals like sulforaphane (broccoli), tea polyphenols, curcumin (spice from curry), and allyl sulfur (garlic) compounds can, and indeed have in retrospective studies, have a strong impact on protecting against all cancers.