Epigenetics refers to how the expression of inherited genes can be affected by non-genetic factors passed on by ancestors. The process should not be confused with the discredited idea of Lamarckian Inheritance which posits that acquired traits, such as muscle volume developed through exercise, would be passed down to offspring. Instead, epigenetic conditions act as a mask over certain genes, and those genes express themselves differently without the organism’s DNA being fundamentally altered. These conditions can be instigated by many different factors including: a mother’s diet, environmental conditions, the organism’s diet, and epigenetic drugs. While epigenetic traits can be passed from a mother to child, it is unlikely that it will become multi-generational unless the instigating factor is present during the pregnancy of each mother. The distribution of epigenetic alterations, such as DNA methylation and histone modifications, is abnormal in mesothelioma cells. Drugs that influence these changes are of interest for treatment.
Epigenetic drugs are those which introduce substances into the body that mask certain gene expressions or counteract epigenetic carcinogens which cause an increased risk of tumor formation. In relation to the treatment of cancer, they are most often designed to work against compounds in the body which mask cancer-preventing genes. Two epigenetic aberrations, DNA hypermethylation and histone deacetylation, are well-studied and known compounds which suppress anti-tumor genes across all types of cancer. An epigenetic drug designed to counteract those compounds would neutralize them and greatly reduce the risk of tumor formation.
These drugs differ from other drugs commonly used in chemotherapy as they work to eliminate a major risk factor systemically instead of directly affecting the growth and formation of established tumors. While the goal of certain chemotherapy drugs is to prevent angiogenesis, the formation of blood vessels, in tumors to eliminate them, epigenetic drugs are intended to remove the compounds which prevent the body from eliminating the tumor on its own.
Many researchers are highly interested in the further research, development, and testing of epigenetic therapy due to limited trials on malignant tumors. Epigenetic drugs have been used routinely to treat non-malignant tumors, and the results suggest that further study could develop into affordable cancer treatments for those living in low to middle income countries. Unlike chemotherapy, there may also be a possibility to use the drugs as a preventative measure against cancer in those who are at high risk. Used in conjunction with other therapies, epigenetic drugs could provide a faster, safer, and more reliable treatment for further advanced patients. For those reasons, several scientists are pushing for further research in this area.