Georgetown University

Medical Reunion Colloquium Focuses on Interplay Between Lifestyle and Genes in Promoting Health

Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for health sciences, made a strong case for a transformative, new look into the future of medicine in the Medical Reunion 2011 colloquium, “Georgetown University Medicine at the Leading Edge: Systems Medicine.”

Near constant changes in our environment over a lifetime—whether in the womb, hospital, home or community—play an unheralded role in our health and wellness, said Federoff.  “The environment can shape how genes actually behave as opposed to how the marching orders of human DNA direct them to behave,” he said.

Using the theoretical case of a 10-year-old boy at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, Federoff illustrated how lifestyle choices that ensure wellness—combined with tests based on individual information gleaned in molecular biology, genomics and epigenetics—will, in the near future, educate the patient and the patient’s family on preventing or minimizing risks rather than waiting to take action after symptoms appear.

Federoff’s theoretical case underscores the interplay between human genes and human environments.  In his scenario, the results of high computation biomarker tests of the future and extensive genetic research into family history will spark a candid conversation with the patient and family.

Expanding on his example, Federoff suggested that in this scenario a physician should discuss healthy choices with the boy’s parents to enable the family in taking an active role in minimizing the risks of future illness.  He added  that the doctor should discuss the child’s current health but also his future risk for developing disease and should note preventative actions, including exercise and a diet high in antioxidants and low in refined carbohydrates.

“Other very potent epigenetic factors can produce gene alteration in many places throughout the body,” Federoff said.  “Everything we thought we knew has to be re-examined.  Our birth potentiality can be modulated our entire lifetime.”