If epigenetics can treat cancer, it's possible that it could prevent it from showing up in the first place. Of course, it's not possible to avoid the kind of tissue damage that occurs simply from aging. Nor can we prevent epigenetic abnormalities from occurring or reverse them early on in the process. However, perhaps we could one day successfully manipulate the mutated epigenes of people who are at higher risk of developing certain cancers. More research is needed to detect the abnormalities and turn the necessary genes on or off before they lead to cancer.
Some doctors have found success in treating some cancers with epigenetic therapy. Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has conducted a study treating patients with a form of cancer called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). This cancer is likely caused by epigenetic abnormalities because it's only found in older people -- those with extensive cell damage caused by the aging process. MDS creates abnormal cells in bone marrow, and previously there was no effective treatment.
Epigenetic therapy seeks to turn on the genes that were turned off by epigenetics in the first place. Issa has found some success with the use of a drug called decitabine. This drug has similar properties to the cytosine base found in our DNA code. It works by keeping the DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs) from carrying out the process of DNA methylation, which results in a reactivation of the genes. According to Issa, about half of the patients in the study with MDS or a similar cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, have experienced complete remission after taking decitabine.
Researchers are working on other drugs to target the DNMTs and treat other types of cancer as well as other hereditary diseases. The American Academy of Cancer Research has also formed a Human Epigenome Task Force to identify and define epigenomes and study how cancer and other diseases might be treated by their manipulation. So while epigenetics can't currently prevent cancer, someday it might.