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I put together a lifelong puzzle in epigenetics

Charlotte Ling. Photo
Photo: Kennet Ruona

Professor Charlotte Ling is doing research within the field of epigenetics to understand changes in the expression of genes based on our environment and lifestyle and how these changes increase a person´s risk of catching diseases such as type 2 diabetes. She is also trying to develop epigenetic biomarkers that can forecast the development of disease, serve as an early health warning system, and be used to predict the response of drugs for treatment of diabetes.

Charlotte is a professor of epigenetics and research group leader at Lund University's Diabetes Center (LUDC). She is also an Executive Board Member of the EpiHealth cohort study.  – It is interesting to see that our environment and lifestyle choices can affect our genes without changing the DNA-sequence and our hereditary genome and influence disease by epigenetic changes. Small-scale epigenetic changes occur all the time in different parts of the body, but my research team focuses on muscles, pancreas, fat, and liver, which are particularly important for development of  type 2 diabetes, says Charlotte.

- Everything we do can cause epigenetic changes such as smoking, stress, what we eat and drink, and many other lifestyle choices. Some of these changes can be inherited in humans and have an impact on an individual´s offspring. We can see that the fetal development is affected by the mother´s environment and her lifestyle choices, explains Charlotte. She continues,

- Epigenetic changes are preserved when cells divide. In our laboratory we cultivate cells to do epigenetic editing which enables us to edit patterns of epigenetic marks that are controlling gene expression. This allows us to learn more about cellular phenotypes caused by epigenetic changes and whether such changes may be targeted for future gene therapy.

During the interview we discuss if there are any ethical concerns to be addressed. Charlotte explains, -I don’t believe there are major ethical aspects concerning our development of epigenetic biomarkers. However, there are ethical implications of research on human genetic or epigenetic variation. It is therefore important that we base our research on ethical principles of respect for persons, , privacy, responsibility, justice, and equity.

- Type 2 diabetes is a multifactorial and polygenic disorder which means that it is related to changes, or defects in multiple genes. To understand the development and to find better treatments for a disease such as type 2 diabetes we need to look at many places in the genome to discover epigenetic changes. My research in epigenetics is like a big puzzle and my researcher group and I continue to add new pieces to the puzzle.  I am confident that the effects of our research in epigenetics will help improve person-centered care.