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Faulty Genes: What You Can Do

by Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE

Hans Larsen The hottest topic in medical research today is genes. How do genes develop faults and what faults cause what diseases? Billions of dollars are being spent on getting the answer to these questions and results are beginning to come in. The gene abnormalities involved in the development of muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and some forms of cancer have recently been identified.

Does this mean that all diseases are ultimately caused by faulty genes and that there is nothing you can do to protect yourself against disease? Is it all genetically preordained?

The answer to these questions is a resounding "No". There are some very simple preventive measures you can take to protect your genes from developing abnormalities.

Our genes are the "blueprint" that governs our initial "construction" and "repair and maintenance" for the rest of our lives. We have about 100,000 different genes made up by stringing together about 3 billion molecules of the four nucleic acids: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. The genes make up strands of DNA which in turn are bundled into chromosomes.

The genes contain messages that tell each individual cell in our body what protein to produce and when to produce it. The DNA strands containing the genes duplicate themselves when our cells divide so that each new cell contains a complete set of genes.

It is interesting that all living organisms have certain genes in common. For instance, we have 90 per cent of the same genes as a mouse and 99 per cent of the same genes as a chimpanzee.

The sum total of our genes is called the human genome and, at the moment, there is a great push on to map it, that is, to determine the sequence of all the nucleic acids making up our DNA. This project is expected to be completed in 2010. Unfortunately, this does not mean that we shall then know what all our genes are or what they do. To determine that is likely to take another 40 or 50 years.

There are two ways that our genes can predispose us to disease. One is if we inherit faulty genes, the other is, if we ourselves develop faulty genes. There is not much we can do about inherited faulty genes. However, we can lessen their impact by maintaining a superb state of health. In a few years we may even be able to replace the faulty genes with normal ones through gene therapy.

Every time a DNA strand duplicates itself there is a risk that an error may occur, the sequence may be wrong or there may be one too many or one too few nucleic acids in a gene sequence. The cells have special enzymes which repair errors in DNA duplication; however, even they may sometimes fail and the error goes uncorrected. If the error is able to replicate itself a number of times it can become established and you are left with a faulty gene which can precipitate a disease such as cancer. As a matter of fact, many researchers now believe that all cancers start by damage to the gene sequences that control cell growth.

It is now believed that the repair enzymes' failure to correct DNA replication errors is due to excessive oxidative stress. In other words, the repair enzymes are attacked by free radicals and undergo a change that prevents them from doing their job properly. Free radicals can also attack the DNA strand directly and thereby initiate gene faults. Some very interesting recent research actually provides convincing proof that the free radicals contained in cigarette smoke attack DNA directly.

It is now generally recognized that the main cause of gene abnormalities is excessive oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is created when the production of reactive oxygen species or free radicals is out of balance with the availability of antioxidants. Our body is constantly coping with oxidative stress whether it has its origins in our digestive processes, our energy- producing processes or in the processes we use in killing off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. When we add air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, ozone, cigarette smoke, car exhaust, toxins, and radiation to the load it can easily become excessive. It has been estimated that each cell in our body has to cope with something like 10,000 individual attacks by free radicals every day.

Fortunately, all living systems have developed defense mechanisms against oxidative stress - if they had not, they would no longer be around.

Superoxide dismutase is the body's main defense and is especially effective in deactivating superoxide radicals. Another natural antioxidant which effectively scavenges free radicals is the selenium-containing antioxidant glutathione peroxidase.

The problem is that with the increasing pollution of our food, air, and water, our natural antioxidants are unable to keep up and we all begin to suffer from oxidative stress and the many diseases caused by it.

Fortunately, we have the solution to excessive oxidative stress right at hand - antioxidants as dietary supplements. Antioxidants such as vitamin-C and vitamin-E, beta-carotene, selenium, and coenzyme Q10 have all been found to be highly effective in scavenging and immobilizing free radicals. Vitamin C is particularly effective in the water phase of the cell and protects us against hydroxyl radicals which attack the DNA and initiate cancer. Vitamin E, on the other hand, works in the lipid or fat phase of the body and is particularly useful in protecting us against heart disease.

In summary, gene abnormalities are now believed to initiate many diseases, among them, cancer. Faulty genes can be inherited or caused by oxidative stress. The best way to combat oxidative stress is by making sure you get plenty of dietary antioxidants and vitamins, eat a low fat diet with lots of fiber and fruits and vegetables, avoid smoking and alcohol abuse, limit your exposure to air pollution, filter your drinking water, avoid margarine and smoked, pickled, fried and barbecued foods, and avoid excessive exposure to x- rays, sunlight. pesticides and other toxins.

This article was first published in the March 1995 issue of International Health News

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