A Closer Look at Genetics and Medicine - Part II

by Austin Arnold    Two weeks ago, The News began a discussion about genetics and medicine, which stemmed from a brand new course being offered at Ohio Northern University that has students studying the relationship between a person’s genetic make-up and how it reacts to medical drugs. With such an interesting topic, it was decided to continue the conversation further, this time talking with a different member of the health care world - someone that deals with patients directly and is relied upon to find answers to the many questions our physical bodies have a habit of posing - a medical doctor. 
   Local physician Dr. Sam Heiks was happy to sit down and share, from his point of view, his thoughts on the connection between genetics and medication. Much like the professor and hundreds of students at ONU, Dr. Heiks is also very much intrigued by the subject.
   “It’s an up and coming field. In medical school we were taught that in the future there would be ways to determine an effectiveness of medication before you give it based on somebody’s genetic profile,” Dr. Heiks said.
   As the course at ONU looks at the topic on a very broad scale, there is a specific factor in the connection between genetics and medicine that really has the attention of Dr. Heiks, and that is the affect one’s environment might play.
   “My interest is in the new field called epigenetics which has to do with how environmental influences affect genetic expression. This is a very powerful area of medicine that I find to be clinically relevant,” Dr. Heiks said.
   A practical example of environmental influences affecting one’s genetic expression comes from a study that involved Dean Ornish, a famous doctor known for research and work in making comprehensive lifestyle changes to prevent health conditions (especially heart disease). In 2005 Ornish teamed up with the urology department at the University of California – San Francisco, where two groups of men with low grade prostate cancer were divided up and treated differently. One group was to follow a comprehensive lifestyle program, which consisted of adopting a whole food plant based diet, not smoking, increasing physical activity, dealing with stress and connecting with others. The other group was essentially left alone and the men carried on with their lives as usual. In only three months, after repeat biopsies, within the group on the program, over 400 genes had either turned up or down in a positive manner. All the while the same genes had shown worsening manifestations in the “usual care” group, according to Dr. Heiks. The men in this study were followed for four years and it was found that the people in the program had seen their prostate cancers get much smaller and some had their cancer regress completely. Dr. Heiks mentioned that this study is an ideal example because low grade prostate cancer is often a condition where there is really no compelling beneficial evidence from surgery or radiation, the approach is more of “watch and wait to see what happens,” he said.
   “It was a perfect opportunity to see what would happen if one group of men followed this comprehensive program,” Dr. Heiks said. “It was just a very remarkable study showing the power of nutrition and lifestyle affecting in a very direct way of gene expression, it’s pretty cool stuff.”

See full story in The Bluffton News