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Epigenetics – You Bring Your Own Goofy Preconceptions to IT

Rooting through the swamps looking for ill-advised uses of epigenetics as I do, I found a really fun one. A roundabout justification for using epigenetics as — get this — a mechanism by which cell phones cause cancer.

To be clear, there is no established connection between using a cell phone and developing cancer. Earlier this fall, the British Medical Journal published a big cohort study on Danish cell phone subscribers found no correlation between the incidence of cancer and longer cell phone use, and we’re talking more than 350,000 people.

Anyway, the cell-phones-cause-cancer thing has driven a couple scientists to do some dumb things. And so comes PLoS blogger Melinda Wenner Moyer to — rightly — castigate Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer for saying microwave radiation couldn’t cause cancer because it doesn’t break DNA. Sure, epigenetic mechanisms could cause cancer. But she takes it a bit far:

[Microwave radiation] wouldn’t have to mess with DNA directly; it could simply enhance the ability of bromodomain proteins to read acetyl-lysine stamps, or mimic Crazy-MYC’s crazy stamping; you get my drift. My point: cancer is about far more than just mutations.

In a previous article, Moyer even hand-waves an epigenetic mechanism for cancer-causing phones. She cites this paper, which reports chromatin conformation changes in lymphocytes exposed to this radiation, as measured by “anomalous viscosity time dependence.” And there’s this article, from the same Swedish lab, studying the effects of such radiation on 10 people. Also as measured by “anomalous viscosity time dependence,” a technique that’s got a long way to go before I believe in it, based on the few refs I can find online. Those that don’t stem from this same Swedish lab, that is.

Moyer also cites this study on the effects of 2450 MHz radio on rats, which is way above the highest frequency in use for cell phones, 1900 MHz. (The previous two studies do actually examine more relevant frequencies in the 900-1000 MHz range.)

It’s a big step to conclude from these studies that cell phones cause cancer, of course, and I’m not about to do that.

Of course! But Moyer’s hand-waving serves its purpose. The gremlins are eating after midnight and raising unalloyed heck! The earnest folks at Microwave News, who’ve been flogging this cell phone-cancer theme for years, they pick up on this tidbit to chide NIH bioethicist Ezekiel Emanual for saying only DNA breaks cause cancer. Oh, and they add this, while thanking Moyer:

It also means that Emanuel has had the last three years to take Epigenetics 101 and still has an incomplete.

And so, when the big, hulking Danish cohort study darkened the horizon of cell phone-cancer connections, that preconception now has a new hope: epigenetics. And the preconceivers haven’t been shy. There’s this one, and this one, and this one too. And whatever the heck this one is.

That’s all to say, hey, it’s grand to point out that cancer doesn’t require DNA breaks, and epigenetic mechanisms are sufficient. But handing the mogwai a gift certificate for the steak dinner buffet — without checking at least three clocks — is just bad form.

[Picture of a kooky road sign discouraging phone-chatting and driving, rather than getting brain damage from a cell phone, by Flickr user bcgrote used here under a Creative Commons license.]

Frei P, Poulsen AH, Johansen C, Olsen JH, Steding-Jessen M, & Schüz J (2011). Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 343 PMID: 22016439

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2 Responses to Epigenetics – You Bring Your Own Goofy Preconceptions to IT

  1. Doug says:

    It sounds like you and Moyer have a pretty good argument back and forth. Epigenetics is yet a relatively new field in genetic sciences. Although the study supports the fact that cell phones do not cause cancer. I would be interested to know other variables like how long they used cell phones, how much time each day, ages and other health history. Are there any long term effects after another 10 or 20 years.

  2. Chris Womack says:

    Thanks Doug. I think Wenner-Moyer and I probably fully agree that there’s no evidence cell phones cause cancer through some epigenetic effect. Looking at this article again, I should’ve been clearer. To show DNA breaks aren’t the only possible cancer-causing mechanism, Wenner-Moyer cited research that claims to show a possible cell-phone-and-epigenetic mechanism. She could’ve mentioned the weaknesses of those studies — extremely small sample size and a (at least to me) questionable experimental procedure — but I bet she noted that research partly because it’s a curiosity. And it never hurts to mention the big, hulking Danish cohort study.

    Anyway, that’s all it took for conspiracy theorists to run with it.

    Anyway anyway, about that Danish study, with 350,000 subjects, I doubt they gathered information about per-day cell phone use. I feel that their approach of looking at overall use, as defined by how long each subject had a cell-phone service plan — is enough to show what they need to show, although the authors note that assumption as one of their study’s weaknesses.

    As for ages and so forth, that would indeed be interesting to take a look at. They’ve adjusted for the effects of age, education, income, etc. on overall cancer incidence rates, so I’m sure they’ve done a breakdown by age group that just isn’t included in this published article.

    Concerning even longer-term use — and I hate this cliche, however appropriate it might be — only time will tell!

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