Almost a decade ago, a team of international researchers completed the first rough map of 25,000 individual genes that make up the human genome – which is essentially a blueprint for producing a human being.
The achievement was hailed as a major scientific breakthrough that would revolutionize medicine. But despite all the hoopla, the researchers really didn’t have much of a grasp on how the genome actually works.
This week, however, their understanding finally took a big leap forward with the completion of the first map of the so-called epigenome – an extra layer of genetic coding that regulates individual genes.
“This is a tool that will allow us to see things we have never seen before,” said Joseph Ecker a professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and senior author of the report published by the journal Nature.
He noted that each cell in an individual’s body contains the same basic genetic information. What makes one cell different from another is that fact that different genes are active.
Dr. Ecker said the epigenome is the key to understanding what turns genes on and off, “like stop and go signposts” superimposed on top of the overall genome.
What’s more, scientists believe the epigenome can be altered by environmental factors, ranging from diet to pollution, and disrupt this finely tuned regulatory process, setting the stage for various illnesses including cancer and heart disease.
By learning how the epigenome works in different cell types, researchers hope to gain new ways to treat and prevent numerous diseases. For this first study of its kind, the team of American and Australian researchers produced an epigenome map of a stem cell and a lung cell. Similar mapping efforts are now under way on other cells.
HPV vaccine not to blame for death
A British schoolgirl who dropped dead just hours after receiving a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer actually had
a malignant tumour in her chest, according to evidence presented at an inquest last week.
Natalie Morton died in late September. Suspicion immediately focused on the vaccine program at her school in Coventry. On the day she died, the 14-year-old had been given a shot of the Cervarix vaccine, which protects against several strains of the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer.
Local health authorities put the HPV vaccination program on hold while they investigated the case.
The inquest has now been told that the vaccine was unrelated to her death.
“The pathologist has confirmed … that she died from a large malignant tumour of unknown origin in the heart and lungs,” Caron Grainger, a physician and director of public health for the Coventry area, said in a statement.
The type of HPV vaccine given to the British teen is not available in Canada, although GlaxoSmithKline is seeking Health Canada’s permission to market Cervarix in this country.
The only HPV vaccine currently approved for use in Canada is Gardasil, made by Merck Frosst.
Even though Cervarix is not being used in this country, news of the British death still sent a chill through many Canadian parents concerned about the vaccinations.
HPV is often transmitted through sexual intercourse. So, many public-health experts would like to see young girls vaccinated before they become sexually active. Most provincial and territorial governments have been footing the bill for Gardasil, but vaccination rates vary across the country.
acetaminophen may reduce effect of childhood shots
A new study suggests it may not be a wise idea to give kids acetaminophen when they receive one of their standard childhood vaccinations. The pain and fever reliever may reduce the effectiveness of the shot.
Researchers at the University of Defence in the Czech Republic conducted the study because pervious trials have indicated that acetaminophen can ease the fever that sometimes accompanies a vaccine jab. Some parents have now adopted the practice of giving their children a pain reliever, hoping it will help them better tolerate the ritual shots.
The study involved several common vaccines including those used to protect against pneumococcal disease, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, polio and rotavirus.
Some of the children got three doses of acetaminophen within 24 hours of the vaccination. Others went drug-free.
The study, published in the British journal The Lancet, revealed acetaminophen does indeed reduce postvaccination fever, but it also lowers the protective immune response normally provided by the vaccine.
The researchers conclude that acetaminophen should “no longer be routinely recommended [for children after the shots] without carefully weighing the expected benefits and risks.”
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