Please note that some translations using Google Translate may not be accurately represented and downloaded documents cannot be translated. Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund assume no liability for inaccuracies that may result from using this third-party tool, which is for website translation.
Please note that some translations using Google Translate may not be accurately represented and downloaded documents cannot be translated. Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund assume no liability for inaccuracies that may result from using this third-party tool, which is for website translation.

What is epigenetics?

Spring 2024
By Brittany Flaherty
Photography by Amy Baugess

Patients around the world are counting on Dana-Farber to make cutting-edge discoveries and address the greatest mysteries in cancer research. Why do some cancers become resistant to treatment? Why do certain drugs work for some patients but not others? How can we detect more cancers at an earlier, treatable stage?

Epigenetics research is helping us answer these crucial questions. In fact, epigenetics is a key priority for The Dana-Farber Campaign and many scientists believe it is the next frontier in cancer medicine. But what is epigenetics?

For decades, cancer research has focused on genes and how changes to the genetic sequence—changes to our DNA—can drive cancer. However, we now know that DNA is only part of the picture.

Epigenetics literally means “above the genes.” Epigenetics research focuses on changes in gene expression or cell function that are not due to changes in the DNA sequence itself, but in how cells read the DNA sequence. Often caused by environmental or external factors like stress, infection, or toxin exposure, epigenetic changes can impact which genes are “expressed”—meaning which genes are turned on or off—including genes involved in cancer.

Consider this: a butterfly has the exact same DNA sequence as the caterpillar it developed from. Its metamorphosis is due to epigenetic changes in which genes are expressed. The same genetic information can result in very different outcomes—caterpillar or butterfly—depending on which genes are turned on or off.

In the same way, each human cell contains the exact same DNA. And like a butterfly, our genes can be expressed in different ways. Normal expression leads to normal cell function, but epigenetic changes or errors can cause cells to “forget” their normal function, which can lead to cancer.

However, we know these changes can be reversed. Epigenetic therapies can help a cell “remember” its identity and restore its function. They can also stop cancer cells from resisting treatment or even enable physicians to detect cancer at an earlier stage.

Dana-Farber is a pioneer in this field. Our scientists have made breakthroughs that led to some of the world’s first epigenetic therapies, including treatments that stop drug resistance in a type of sarcoma and block epigenetic changes in a form of pediatric leukemia.

With generous support through The Dana-Farber Campaign, we can build on this momentum and leverage our unique expertise to pursue research at the forefront of discovery, ultimately allowing us to transform care for patients everywhere.

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