Saturday, 17 March 2012

Lifestyle Intervention Turns Off 'Bad Genes'

"Oh, I've got bad genes, there's nothing I can do about it"

Heard that line before? Recent research is turning those ideas upside down, showing that you can turn off the 'bad genes' and turn on the 'good genes' simply by changing your lifestyle.

Enter the field of gene expression, where ‘organisms ... turn genes on and off in response to signals from their internal and external environments’ [1]. Researchers from the University of California have conducted studies into prostate gene expression, finding evidence that cancer genes in the prostate can be turned ‘on’ and ‘off’ by changes in lifestyle and nutrition [2]. Research is showing increased interest in this area, as abnormal expression of genes can cause diseases such as cancer. 

The research by Ornish et al. in 2008 is one of many studies examining how this abnormal expression can be prevented.The study was conducted on 30 men, all of who had low-risk prostate cancer. None of the men were undergoing therapies of any kind, allowing the study to be uninfluenced by external factors. The study was specific to genes related to prostate-cancer regulation and went for 3 months [2]. During the study, the men "… underwent comprehensive lifestyle changes: low-fat, whole-food, plant-based nutrition; stress management; moderate exercise; participation in psychosocial group support" [2].

At the conclusion of the study, the results showed that genes that were protective against prostate cancer were ‘turned on’, while cancer promoting genes were ‘turned off’ [2]. In addition to these findings, the participants all experienced positive results such as weight loss, lowered cholesterol and lower stress levels [2].

Figure 1, Source: [2]

The study, called the Gene Expression Modulation by Intervention with Nutrition and Lifestyle (GEMINAL) focused on a prostate-specific antigen (PSA). PSA is a protein produced by prostate cells, with high levels suggesting prostate disease [3].  Researchers took prostate needle biopsies at the beginning and conclusion of the study and examined the mRNA using real-time PCR [2]. The results were presented as a heat map showing levels of up-regulated and down-regulated genes in a ‘morphologically normal’ prostate, comparing post-intervention and pre-intervention levels.  The results indicate 48 ‘up-regulated’, 543 ‘down-regulated genes’, and that“pathways involved in protein metabolism and modification, intracellular protein traffic, and protein phosphorylation were significantly down-regulated" [2]. 
Figure 2: heat-map showing the down-regulation of protein-trafficking pathways in a morphologically normal prostate at pre- and post-intervention. Green indicates down-regulated genes while red indicates up-regulated Source: [2]
The results of the study show that prostate gene expression can be altered through lifestyle and nutrition intervention. However, there is also the suggestion that " because (the researchers) looked at normal tissue within the prostate, it is likely that (the) findings may be generalize beyond men with prostate cancer”[2]

The conclusion of the study suggests future studies be done to consolidate and extend the research, particularly in terms of specific factors affecting the changes in gene expression. The researchers suggest further studies be done into whether particular foods, food components or lifestyle changes are responsible for the alterations in gene expression [2]. Results from further studies would have profound effects in the medical fields; a foray into preventative medicine where people could tweak aspects of their lifestyle to avoid the expression of "bad" (cancer-causing) genes. 

Effectively, the study shows that disease doesn't have to be your fate, even if you have "bad genes". The results show that making changes to your lifestyle and diet can make changes to not only how your genes are expressed, but your overall well being. You can do something about those "bad genes", after all. 

Original Article: "Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention" in PNAS, 2008.

  1. Reece, Jane B; Meyers, Noel; Urry, Lisa A; Cain, Michael L; Wasserman, Steven A; Minorsky, Peter V; Jackson, Robert B; Cooke, Bernard N, 2012 'Regulation of Gene Expression', Campbell Biology, Australian 9th Edition, Pearson, Australia pp. 362
  2. Ornish, Dean; Magbanua, Mark Jesus M; Weidner, Gerdi; Weinberg, Vivian; Kemp, Colleen; Green, Christopher; Mattie, Michael D; Marlin, Ruth; Simko, Jeff; Shinohara, Katsuto; Haqq, Christopher M; Carroll, Peter R, 2008, 'Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 105, Issue 24, viewed Tuesday 13 March 2012,
  3. Ulf-Håkan Stenman, Jari Leinonen, Wan-Ming Zhang, Patrik Finne, 1999 'Prostate-specific antigen', Seminars in Cancer Biology, Volume 9, Issue 2, Abstract, viewed Thursday 15 March 2012,

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