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Epigenetics: A Friend or Foe To Manufacturers?

 

 Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function or expression that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. The Greek prefix epi- means "over, outside of, around" and in epigenetics it implies features that are "on top of" or "in addition to" the traditional biological genetic basis for inheritance. More recently, epigenetic research has focused on how environmental factors and lifestyle choices influence our genes and has flourished to become one of the most groundbreaking areas of science over the past decade. The word ‘epigenetics’ is everywhere these days, from academic journals and popular science articles to ads touting miracle cures. But what is epigenetics, and is it a friend or a foe to manufacturing business?

 

To better understand the concept of epigenetic, let us use a familiar analogy. Assuming that human life span is a long, epic movie: The cells would be the "actors" as important units that make up the movie. DNA would be the "script" (the instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. DNA sequence would be the "words" on the script. Genes would be certain "blocks of these words" that instruct key actions or events to take place. The concept of genetics would be like "screenwriting". The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like "directing". The script can be the same, but the director can choose to exclude or change certain scenes or dialogue. For the same movie script, two directors could come up with different effects on the audience.  The difference would be due to "directing" talent, namely epigenetic experiences of the directors.

 

But is that the whole truth? To understand the darker implications of epigenetics, just think back through human history. There certainly is no shortage of war, famine, exploitation, destruction, epidemic and trauma caused by debilitating events such as holocausts. Knowing that some of this can leave a biological trace in our genes, which can even be transmitted to future generations, could be problematic. Wondering why identical twins are not actually identical? Epigenetics explains it! Want to blame your parents for something that does not seem to be genetic? Epigenetics is the culprit!

 

At the heart of this new field of epigenetics is a simple but contentious idea that genes have a "memory". That the lives of your father, mother or grandparents including the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw can directly affect you, decades later, despite you are never experiencing these things yourself. Eerie, if not mind boggling! The science that studies this transmission is called epigenetics, a paradigm-shifting breakthrough of the 21st century.

 

One of the earliest discoveries about epigenetic expressions was "The Dutch Famine" of 1944–45, known as the Hongerwinter ("Hunger winter") in Dutch. The famine that took place in the German-occupied part of the Netherlands. Some 4.5 million persons were affected but survived because of soup kitchens. Over 22,000 may have died because of the famine. The famine was alleviated by the liberation of the provinces by the Allied forces in May 1945. However, the effects of severe stress, famine and other exposures has been shown to be inherited multigenerationally (to grandchildren). The Dutch famine of 1944 has provided evidence that exposures that occur prior to conception and in utero can have lasting effects on subsequent generations.

 

The field of epigenetics is quickly growing and with it the understanding that both the environment and individual lifestyle can also directly interact with the genome to influence epigenetic change. Studies have shown that children born during the period of the Dutch famine from 1944-1945 have increased rates of coronary heart disease and obesity after maternal exposure to famine during early pregnancy compared to those not exposed to famine. These studies were groundbreaking for the main reason that they revealed just how deeply stress, trauma, and famine can penetrate into our lives. Not only do the effects of stress and malnutrition impact us at the time they occur, they can have lingering effects on ourselves and on our children for decades to come.

 

Here is the important point for human rights advocates:  if we experience trauma, hunger, or prolonged stress, these factors ultimately will influence our mental, physical, and emotional characteristics.  Our DNA itself does not change, but the way that DNA is activated by our cells changes. Because we are biological creatures, our offspring inherit our DNA.  This means that the stresses from the external environment, also, will become genetically inherited. 

 

Studies have concluded that stress-induced epigenetic signatures (genes in a cell with unique expressions) are indeed transmitted to the next generation. Based on existing evidence, prenatal stress, through epigenetic alterations, becomes one of the most powerful influences on mental health in later life. Scientific research is revealing how our ancestors’ traumatic childhoods or heroic adventures can form our personalities. We are formed in the most subtle dimensions through our ancestors, for better or worse, and most often acquire both.

 

Since even simple organisms learn fundamental survival skills and pass these on to their offspring, it is not surprising that life-changing experiences in humans, which result in knowledge useful for survival, would be passed on to future generations. Children of survivors are thus molded by life-threatening experiences of their parents, especially since these experiences were extremely negative, uncontrollable and sudden and induced intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Essentially, transgenerational transmission of trauma may be understood as a kind of "vicarious" encounter with calamity.

 

According to researchers like Marcus Pembrey, Wolf Reik, Rachel Yehuda, Lars Olov Bygen and others, epigentic changes are heritable over multiple-generations and are primarily the results of environmental influences. This concept challenges orthodoxy of the biology of inheritance in the sense that humans are not only driven by inheritance of  genes from one's parents, but also from the mechanisms of  the "ghost" in our genes, the epigenetic processes at the molecular level.  Since inheritance is not just from DNA, what we experience will affect our children and their children as long as genes will carry memory from one generation to the next.

 

Epigenetic effects caused by chemicals and other environmental agents may provide a new source of litigation and liability under the common law. Such litigation, especially when it involves second and third generation effects, would raise a number of novel challenges and issues. For example, how should statute of limitations rules be applied? Another issue involves obtaining discovery of medical records of other family members, including the parents or grandparents who were initially exposed. In the case of genocide, however, the statue of limitations does not apply.

 

Although our epigenetic marks are more stable during adulthood, they are still thought to be dynamic and modifiable by lifestyle choices and environmental influence. It is becoming more apparent that epigenetic effects occur not just in the womb, but over the full course of a human life span, and that epigenetic changes could be reversed.

 

Epigenetic effects caused by chemicals and other environmental agents have begun to pave the road to new source of litigation and liability under the common law. This new genre of litigations that involve second and third generation effects raise a number of new challenges and issues. For example, will the statute of limitations rules apply to effects observed in the future, on future generations? Another major problem stems from obtaining discovery of medical records of other family members, including the parents and grandparents who were first exposed to the detrimental drug(s).

 

The leading precedent claim based on epigenetic scientific findings is the litigation concerning DES, which was used widely over a twenty-four year period. In 1971, it was found to cause severe reproductive illnesses in daughters of pregnant women who took the drug. DES was manufactured by a variety of different companies and many different types of DES tablets were made by different manufacturers were interchanged freely. This was the stumbling block for the plaintiff's case. 

 

Product liability actions were brought against the manufacturers of DES by daughters of women who ingested it. A number of serious legal issues were raised, such as the plaintiffs' ability to recover despite the inability to name the responsible manufacturer(s) of the pills taken by the plaintiffs' mother, the courts of many states sowed a great willingness to overcome the structural or procedural barriers to recovery. The ruling in favor of the plaintiffs will most likely open the floodgates of litigation about the epigenetic harms caused to multiple generations by drugs manufactured by other companies. In conclusion, we would say that epigentics is the friend of the consumer and a fierce foe of the manufactures that produce and sell products that will have ill effects on the consumers from generation to generation.

 

 

Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach