Newspaper article

Beyond DNA: Research Has Minnesotans Looking at How Behavior and Environment Affect Lifespans

Newspaper article

Beyond DNA: Research Has Minnesotans Looking at How Behavior and Environment Affect Lifespans

Article excerpt

Here's a new measure of how long you might live: A Minneapolis-based insurance company is looking at saliva, but not for the usual DNA evidence. Instead, the company is looking beyond DNA to epigenetic markers.

The inquiry stems from a relatively new field of scientific research that is promising enough to have prompted major initiatives at the University of Minnesota, the Mayo Clinic and other prominent institutions worldwide.

Epigenetics also is bringing welcome relief to philosophers and theologians who've objected that the commonly understood dictates of DNA were far too rigid, that humans are more than mere hardwired products of their genes.

Epigenetics may not be a common word in your insurance office or health clinic. Not yet. But for the Minneapolis company GWG Life, it comes down to an innovative tool for gauging whether a person might beat his or her chronological age and live longer than the life-expectancy charts would suggest. Or, on the darker flip side, die earlier. The company, which buys life insurance policies from seniors, has begun collecting saliva samples and analyzing them for epigenetic markers that could provide indicators of overall health and life expectancy.

The approach is based on research done at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) by a biomathematician named Steve Horvath. A 2014 profile in the journal Nature said he has "discovered a strikingly accurate way to measure human ageing through epigenetic signatures."

GWG Life obtained rights from UCLA for use of technology based on that discovery, and it is working to deploy it as a new tool for life insurance underwriting.

"It's so novel," Jon Sabes, GWG's CEO, said. "We are bringing a real commercial application from a scientific discovery that I think will benefit consumers ... and that's great. But boy, the underlying science behind epigenetics, how our environment impacts our biology ... it's just so fascinating. For me that has been the big reward of this adventure."

What is epigenetics?

Generations of students have drilled on the basics of DNA: Every cell in our bodies contains our master code, the full lineup of the genes we inherited to develop, grow and function for life. The codes in those genes are deployed to carry on the business of bodily life, and the underlying genes don't change unless a mutation occurs.

That's the simple picture. Now comes epigenetics. It turns out that lifestyle and environment can influence our genes more than was previously thought. Even while the DNA lineup remains hardwired, chemical compounds - often methyl groups -- can attach to DNA or its key cellular companions and effectively switch the genes off or on.

University of Minnesota scientists are studying such epigenetic markers as they play into obesity, smoking, cancer, heart disease and other conditions. An overall goal of the various studies is to determine how behavior -- such as smoking -- and environmental factors -- such as air pollution or even stress -- can change the effective work of DNA.

Beyond shedding new understanding on the medical conditions, the research could lead to new treatments and medicines that can specifically target epigenetic markers.

New biology

The shift toward examining genes in their environmental context is applauded by many theologians and philosophers for whom biology had become too mechanistic, leaving little room for alternative interpretations of nature and its intricate systems - even, little room for mystery. …

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