By Artur Agaronyan
On Monday, February 17th 2014, Dr. Mukesh Verma from the National Institute of Health spoke about epigenetics and about it’s role and future in the treatment of cancer. Verma spoke about how cancer becomes prevalent, about statistics of how cancer develops, in which scenarios it does and what effect epigenetics can have on the development of cancer.
Genetics can affect an individual’s predisposition for a specific cancer, Verma said. In the process of cell development, mRNA, which until the last few years science did not know was a factor in humans, can affect gene expression, he said. While cancer development due to genetics is something that cannot be modified at this point, Verma mentioned that epigenetics is the “one which you can change” when theorizing how to control cancer, as epigenetics can directly control gene expression. Epigenetics has a “lot of potential” in affecting the course of cancer, he said.
Verma explained the development of epigenetics, which began in the mid ’90s. Since then, 4 types of epigenetics-based treatments have been approved by the FDA, he said. Verma explained that in clinical trials, epigenetics have made a significant positive difference in a group of people living with cancer that were not responding to other drugs. However, Verma stressed the importance of environment in addition to genetics in diagnosing the cause of this disease. Hepatocellular Carcinoma is common in Japanese society, however it is anything but common in most other parts of the world, he said. There are many other factors that we cannot control or even begin to understand and Verma stresses that it is “easier to discuss the options of treatment.”
“30-40% cancers can be prevented by diet or lifestyle change.” said Verma. He continued “Every human being is different.” With the same drug, 2 people can have completely different reactions, even those with similar or identical genetic material, he explained. The NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Mapping Consortium will help with the development of treatment based on epigenetics, he said. With this in mind, “personalized medicine is possible.” he said. The future of medicine belongs to personalized treatment which will be much more powerful in it’s ability to affect the development of this disease, he said.
Globe hall was populated and many questions were asked during the Q & A period. Student turnout was high as was professor turnout. One student explained his reason for attending as “[learning about] what epigenetics is.” He also remarked “Though I’m mostly here for the extra points.” Retired Chemistry Professor Bob Coley was also in the audience, and was also the professor who started the Science Spectrum Lecture Series in the early ’80s. Coley explained the Spectrum Program’s inception as a result of his undergraduate schooling during which he enjoyed many lectures from many different fields of study, he said. Upon becoming a professor at Montgomery College in the ’70s, Coley realized that there wasn’t anything like a comparable lecture series at MC at that point, he said. This prompted the creation of the Science Spectrum series, as Coley explained “I’m a chemist. So I started a lecture series about science.” The program initially had small turnout, as did MC at that point, “I was the chemistry faculty.” Coley said. Susan Bontems, a chemistry professor at MC’s Germantown Campus and director of Monday’s lecture, explained that the Spectrum series can offer students a look into a possible career, a goal which can form educational plans and expand a student’s understanding of the world, she said.
Dr. Verma has edited 3 books and is program director and chief in the Methods and Technologies Branch, Epidemiology and Genetics Research Program of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Health. Dr. Verma said that he enjoyed speaking at MC and called the event “a wonderful opportunity.”