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Johns Hopkins Health - 5 Questions for an Epigenetics Expert

Spring 2016
Issue No. 32

5 Questions for an Epigenetics Expert

Date: April 15, 2016

5 Questions for an Epigenetics Expert


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Since the 1980s, Andrew Feinberg, M.D., M.P.H., has pioneered groundbreaking research that has exposed clues into the makeup of common human diseases—including cancer, obesity, neuropsychiatric conditions and more—that could one day serve as a basis for improved screening and preventive treatments. Here, Feinberg, who is the director of the Center for Epigenetics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, helps us better understand his field.

1. How do you define epigenetics? 

Epigenetics is a form of cellular heredity other than the DNA sequence that incorporates environmental exposures into its code. Those factors include things like diet, exercise habits and exposure to carcinogens.

2. How do these things affect cells?

They bring about chemical changes in one’s genes. We already know that common human diseases often have at least as much of an environmental connection as a genetic component. For example, we know that a high-fat diet leads to increases in colon cancer and diabetes, that smoking leads to increases in cancer and that early life stress is a major factor in a variety of mental illnesses.

3. How can changing one's environment help?

That is an area of active research and will require clinical trials and epidemiological studies to answer. One encouraging sign that I can share: We found that bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery) reversed many of the epigenetic changes in adipose tissue (which is the visceral fat surrounding internal organs) associated with a high-fat diet and linked to glucose utilization.

4. You're studying the twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Can you share news?

Scott was in a controlled environment for the year he was in space, so we’re looking for any changes to his epigenome—changes that aren’t noted in Mark—that return to baseline now that he’s back. We won’t be able to say that space itself forced the changes, but we could relate them to changes other investigators are studying.

5. What drives you? 

Curiosity and a desire to improve health in a major way. I have the perfect job.