One of the intended goals of the ELSI CEER program is to provide guidance on policy issues that arise from novel genetic and genomic science and applications. This focus, however, misses epigenetic processes. Epigenetics involves the point at which nature and nurture intersect via discrete environmentally imposed modifications to the genome. These modifications include DNA methylation, and their distribution across the genome creates cell-specific epigenomes that control cell-specific expression patterns. Unlike the DNA sequence of the genome, which is relatively static throughout life, the epigenome is dynamic during fetal and childhood development. This dynamic aspect of the epigenome creates opportunities, such as novel cancer therapies, but it also creates vulnerabilities, such as lifelong risk of disease from inadequate maternal nutrition or nurturing. The premise of this P20 planning application is that an increase in epigenetic knowledge resulting from current NIH and other initiatives will create challenges and opportunities for understanding human biology and behavior, and how to better protect both. The proposed Center is based on three assumptions about epigenetics: (1) Epigenetic concepts constitute a profound paradigm shift in scientific understandings of the interaction of gene and environment;(2) Epigenetic findings are likely to have implications for traditionally vulnerable populations, as scientific research is translated to health applications;and (3) Epigenetic findings will have a powerful impact on public policy. An interdisciplinary group of investigators from Oregon Health &Science University and the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis and Clark College, in partnership with the community based Northwest Native American Research Center for Health and Oregon Center for Environmental Health, and with links to the University of Washington's Center for Genomics and Healthcare Equality (P50), will engage in a range of activities to support the following Specific Aims: (1) Create an interdisciplinary Commons upon which will to build partnerships and an organizational structure to be used to design and implement investigations of complex and rapidly emerging ELSI issues in epigenetics;(2) Undertake preliminary social science investigation, through discourse analysis and interviews with key informants, of two health-related cases in epigenetics;(3) Investigate the translation of epigenetic science to cancer diagnostics and therapy;(4) Examine law and policy implications of epigenetic knowledge through preparation of a series of publishable white papers;and (5) Design and prepare for a training program, including a plan to recruit and retain minority students.
Our lives are controlled in large part by interactions between the environment and our genes via modifications to DNA and attached proteins. These so-called "epigenetic" modifications can increase or decrease our capabilities as humans depending up the types of modifications that occur and where they occur in our genomes. The ethical, legal and social implications of rapidly emerging epigenetic data will be considered.