You’ve likely heard the term “DNA” many times, but what does it mean? If your science class in high school isn’t still fresh in your minds, you’re not alone. Here is a bit about DNA and why it exists, as well as how it relates to disease and the environment.
Deoxyribonucleic acid is better known simply as DNA. It is found in the central part (nucleus) of a cell, which composes the human body.
There are trillions of cells in you! Thus, DNA is said to be a building block in the body.
Within the nucleus, strands of DNA pack tightly together to form chromosomes. Genes are made up of DNA; they are the hereditary material that is within the cell nucleus. Ultimately, genes act as a guide for making proteins.
While DNA is mainly found in the nucleus, a small amount is also present in the mitochondria. It is called mtDNA or mitochondrial DNA.
When Genes are Faulty
As cells divide, genes can pick up mistakes that scientists call mutations. They can naturally happen or can be triggered by certain events, such as smoking tobacco, environmental chemicals, x-rays, and more.
Sometimes faulty genes are inherited from parents, which puts the individual at a higher risk of developing cancer. Understanding DNA is key to defining what is cancer.
While a single mutation is not likely to cause cancer, multiple mutations can happen over a lifetime, which helps to explain why cancer often occurs within seniors.
When DNA and Environment Collide
The interactions between DNA and the environment is a growing field of study. By understanding the biological sources of disease, it could bring new ways to diagnose and treat conditions, such as different types of cancer. It could also provide insights into prevention.
Gene-environment studies can help researchers answer important questions, such as why the US has higher incidences of certain cancers than other parts of the world. In these types of studies, researchers are interested primarily in what turns genes on and off, in addition to genetic mutations from birth.
Interestingly, researchers are also expanding their definition of “environment” to go beyond air pollution and exposure to radiation. They are also looking at how diet, exercise, sunlight, and more, can affect genes.
Personalized Cancer Treatments
Providing a personalized cancer treatment plan involves creating a special course of treatment tailored to the individual, as opposed to a generic plan based on the type of cancer. This personalized approach is a good one as people have genetic differences, as do their cancers.
For this reason, two people with the same type of cancer can respond differently to the same treatment approach. While people still receive a certain treatment for the type and stage of cancer, doctors can personalize it based on a patient’s genetic information. This approach can also be part of a clinical trial.
Final Words on DNA
Understanding the different terms relating to cancer or another disease, including DNA, can help patients fully understand their diagnosis and treatment. Research continues to occur on genes and environment to help understand how best to protect human health.