Being that cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States today, researchers are looking into when this risk actually starts so that they can nip it in the bud. One study is actually tracing this risk back to the time of conception.

Fox news reports on the study.

Many are aware that a mother’s diet can affect her baby’s development in utero.

But a new study shows that the mother’s eating habits around the time of conception can also possibly affect the baby’s risk of getting cancer.

The new study, which was published in the journal Genome, found that a gene affecting a person’s threat of cancer can be permanently altered in utero depending on a mother’s diet. “While a child’s genes are directly inherited from his parents, how the genes are expressed is controlled through modifications to the DNA, which occur during embryonic and fetal development,” according to the report.

Alterations can happen when gene regions are tagged with chemical compounds called methyl groups that silence genes. The compounds involved need particular nutrients, which means that a mother’s eating habits before and during pregnancy can permanently affect where these tags are placed.

Who led the study?

Experts at the Baylor College of Medicine, the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in London, the MRC Unit and The Gambia, all took part in the research.

They split into two groups and aimed specific regions of the genome called metastable epiallels that are particularly sensitive to these particular effects.

Both of the groups found that the tumor suppressor gene VTRNA2-1, which helps prevent cells from becoming cancerous, was the most sensitive to the environment created by the mother around the time of the conception of the baby.

Dr. Robert Waterland, an associate professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Baylor commented on the findings. He said,

“There are around 20,000 genes in the human genome. So for our two groups, taking different approaches, to identify this same gene as the top epiallele was like both of us digging into different sides of a gigantic haystack containing 20,000 needles… and finding the exact same needle.”

In general, apart from genes on sex chromosomes, mammals inherit two copies of all genes, which function on an equal level. Experts found that VTRNA2-1 belongs to a special class of genes that are expressed from only the maternal or paternal copy.

“These genes are labeled imprinted genes because they are imprinted with epigenetic marks inherited from either the sperm or egg, the report said. What further sets VTRNA2-1 apart is that it is the first example of an imprinted metastable epiallele,” according to Fox.

Is there other research to support this?

Three former studies proved that a heightening in these methylation marks is a threat factor for acute myeloid leukemia, lung and esophageal cancer.

And also interesting, these studies showed that a decrease in these marks— VTRNA2-1 loss of imprinting— led to individuals with a double-dose of the anti-cancer gene. Experts are saying that these findings have enormous implications.

Gerry Oginski
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