Editor’s Note: Dr. Eugenia Wang is a Distinguished Chair Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Louisville. She received the 2013 Alltech Medal of Excellence for her pioneering work in using high-throughput technologies to explore the molecular signatures of Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias and heart disease. This honor is awarded each year during Alltech’s International Symposium.
With the recent news headlines of Angelina Jolie’s pre-emptive double mastectomy and her inherited BRCA1 gene, people are becoming more curious about the role science plays in preventive healthcare and personalized medicine. While Ms. Jolie can afford the $4,000 genetic test and reconstructive surgery today, recent research suggests that the average Joe and Jane should have access to advanced, inexpensive healthcare diagnostics by 2020.
Human and animal science researchers are now exploring beyond the genes defined by our DNA and are increasing their focus on RNA, specifically the world of microRNAs. Regardless of our genetic makeup, these newly discovered, tiny pieces of RNA dictate how and when specific genes function throughout an animal’s or human’s lifespan. We now know there are at least 2,000 microRNAs, and that they can be influenced by environment and nutrition. For example, an individual’s battle with obesity is now estimated to be won or lost by the age of two, based on his or her environment and nutrition at the start of life. In response to stress, microRNAs direct specific cells to either survive or die, and specific genes to come into play.
For example, one monozygotic (identical) twin may develop diabetes, cancer or arthritis, while the genetically identical co-twin remains relatively healthy. Epigenetic tags are more prone to change over time than genetic DNA, so even though twins may start out with very similar epigenomes, they can diverge over time.
Since the 1970s, the aging population of the United States (among other countries) has expanded remarkably. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2050, the United States is projected to experience rapid growth in its older population. In 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double the same age group of 40.3 million in 2010.
This creates a predictable tsunami in elder care, both here and abroad. Through the globalization of environment and e-commerce, we will see a storm of increased health perils across all age groups, such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, life stress and childhood obesity.