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February 15, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 4)

Today's Discoveries Morph Into Tomorrow's Revolutions

The Most Useful Products Will Come from Epigenetics Once It's Out of Vogue

  • Waiting Until the Next Revolution Rolls Around

    “The most important discoveries will provide answers to questions that we do not yet know how to ask and will concern objects we have not yet imagined,” said John Bahcall, Ph.D., astrophysicist.

    These discoveries are all part of an epigenetic revolution; mile markers on the way to a fully integrated approach to cell physiology. They are revolutionary in their own right, but they will be superseded by the advances of the next great revolution. Still, it’s likely that several breakthrough products will trace their strongest roots back to these advancements.

    Stem cell research has already produced remarkable systems such as Geron’s nerve regeneration therapy (in clinical trials now). But why stop at injecting oligodendrocytes into a spinal cord injury? Why not come up with some treatment that forces the patient’s own cells to take up the task? Research has demonstrated both that differentiated cells such as fibroblasts can be treated in such a way that they regain some of their pluripotency. Other discoveries suggest that small populations of resident stem cells remain circulating in the body throughout an individual’s lifetime.

    So, while optogenetics might bring about an end to schizophrenia or elucidate depression, and RNAi could be the next cancer killer, the technological backbone of these discoveries is still far from mature. Difficulties in delivery and off-target effects threaten to keep RNAi restricted to eyedrops for macular degeneration and other surface approaches. These challenges also plague stem cell development.

    As genomic medicine started reaching maturity around the time that epigenetics became cutting edge, it is not unreasonable to expect these new discoveries will produce their most useful products around the time that the focus on epigenetics gives way to the next model.

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