The secret to healing what ails you lies within your own DNA.
(photo credit: DREAMSTIME)
Israeli genetic researchers have opened the door to new avenues of medical innovation with their research into the role that RNA plays in gene regulation.
Genomes, a complete set of genes, are divided into two categories: coding DNA and noncoding DNA (known as RNA). Dr. Ramon Birnbaum, co-founder of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Center for Evolutionary Genomics and Medicine (EGM), had long been fascinated with the latter. His pioneering research found that noncoding DNA, once labeled “junk,” plays an essential role in gene regulation.
His research focuses on understanding gene regulation during the brain’s development and specifically in early onset epilepsy. He explains why diagnosis and treatment can be difficult in infants: “The symptoms can look the same, but the causes can be very different. Diving into the mechanisms that cause genes to express or not express will lead to more accurate diagnoses and avoid inefficient or even damaging medication."
Dr. Barak Rotblat, a member of the EGM Center, focuses on how genes affect cancer cells. He explains the potential for personalized medicine treating cancer patients. “You can take a biopsy, see the specific tumor, know which genes are highly expressed, and which promote the cancer’s growth. You then create a cocktail to hit the tumor cells of the individual patient.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Debbie Toiber, also of the EGM Center and Department of Life Sciences, is taking the RNA research in another direction. Her focus is on how mapping DNA can improve health and potentially increase lifespans.
“DNA damage is one of the major causes of aging and age-related diseases,” she explains. “Most of the damage is repaired, but not everything. So as we age the DNA damage accumulates.” With the accumulated damage, cells and neurons die, and organs become debilitated, causing the body to be more susceptible to disease and aging disorders.
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Damage to the body is inevitable on some level by simply living, with the environment causing additional damage. While lifestyle plays a major role in the body’s ability to repair DNA damage on its own, genetic makeup contributes as well.
For example, if someone has an inherited gene mutation, it could limit his or her body’s ability to repair itself, leaving the individual prone to immune system damage, cancer, neurodegeneration, and premature aging. By looking into a person’s genetic makeup, researchers are opening the door to personalized medicine, designed to uniquely address an individual’s needs.
As Israeli researchers move forward with their studies, we come closer to gaining a deeper understanding of the human genome and providing the right personalized treatment for a myriad of medical conditions, from birth to old age and everything in between.
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