Epigenetics: What Is the Potential of Epigenetic Therapy for Cancer?

Discover why a better understanding of epigenetics—the microscopic universe that surrounds and controls DNA—offers therapeutic possibilities for cancer.

It has long been assumed that we’re stuck with the genes we’re born with—for better or worse. That said, epigenetics, the study of biological mechanisms that help turn genes on and off, is has begun to alter that view.

Essentially, Epigenetics studies how the coded information created by genes is translated and expressed by cells, with a specific focus on how inherited traits are or can be altered by environmental conditions without changing the actual DNA sequence.

Exactly how the environment influences genes is still being unraveled. Lifestyle choices and other factors appear to alter the molecules that surround DNA, affecting how tightly it is packed and thus how active or inactive certain genes are. The packing is controlled by several families of enzymes that add or remove tiny chemical “tags” on the DNA.

The exciting thing about epigenetic changes, unlike genetic mutations, is that they can be reversed. This makes it an attractive area to researchers who hope to cure diseases of all kinds. To achieve this, researches have started their work by tagging specific enzymes to reset cancers genes to a normal state. “It’s easy to make inhibitors of enzymes,” Scott Armstrong, oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, recently told Nature. “Everyone sees this as a potential opportunity.”

Targeted therapies activate or deactivate parts of the chromatin with the aim of slowing or stopping a disease. Therapies such as this can also be used in combination with more traditional treatments such as chemotherapy.

While fewer than half a dozen epigenetic medications are on the market today, their potential is on the rise. Celgene has two therapies that target epigenetic alterations and is looking to develop more. To that end, Celgene partnered with Cambridge, Mass.-based Epizyme, a biopharmaceutical company focused on epigenetics, in April 2012.

The companies are looking to identify therapies to treat a rare blood cancer called mixed lineage leukemia (MLL). Although the patient population is not large, those with this form of leukemia have few options. And that makes it the perfect arena for Celgene.