If someone living in America and eating a typical diet and leading a sedentary lifestyle lets a few years go by, we can expect plaques of cholesterol and inflammatory cells to build up in his or her arteries. We’re not talking “Super-size Me” here, we’re just talking average American. But then let’s say that same person decides: “OK, I’m going to shape up. I’m going to eat healthier and exercise more.”
Let’s leave aside whether low-carb or low-fat is best, and let’s say that person succeeds in sticking to his or her declared goals. How “locked in” are the changes in the blood vessels when someone has healthy or unhealthy blood flow patterns?
Biomedical engineer Hanjoong Jo and his colleagues published a paper in Journal of Clinical Investigation that touches on this issue. They have an animal model where disturbed blood flow triggers the accumulation of atherosclerosis. They show that the gene expression changes in endothelial cells, which line blood vessels, have an epigenetic component. Specifically, the durable DNA modification known as methylation is involved, and blocking DNA methylation with a drug used for treating some forms of cancer can prevent atherosclerosis in their model. This suggests that blood vessels retain an epigenetic imprint reflecting the blood flow patterns they see.
Although treating atherosclerosis with the drug decitabine is not a viable option clinically, Jo’s team was able to find several genes that are silenced by disturbed blood flow and that need DNA methylation to stay shut off. A handful of those genes have a common mechanism of regulation and may be good therapeutic targets for drug discovery.