Science and Law
14th March 2014

Epigenetics in the Courtroom

We’re noticing that the concept of epigenetics is cropping up in the legal arena more frequently. Attorneys are exploring this relatively new scientific field in an effort to uncover evidence that may help establish causation in toxic torts. However, the field is still in its infancy, and epigenetics alone will likely not provide sufficient evidence to prove causation.

Epigenetics in the Courtroom

We’re noticing that the concept of epigenetics is cropping up in the legal arena more frequently. Attorneys are exploring this relatively new scientific field in an effort to uncover evidence that may help establish causation in toxic torts. However, the field is still in its infancy, and epigenetics alone will likely not provide sufficient evidence to prove causation. To effectively confront epigenetic research in the courtroom, it’s important to have an understanding of the concept and its limitations as potential proof of causation. Below we offer some insight into this nascent field and access to resources that provide further information.

Epigenetics refers to the non-genetic memory of cells, which records developmental and environmental cues and can turn genes on or off. Epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequence, but places tags on the DNA that influence the expression of genes (To learn more about epigenetics, consult resources here and here). Research in the field of epigenetics indicates that environmental factors have the potential to alter an individual’s DNA and therefore influence disease risk and health outcomes (see here and here for open-access reviews on the topic). It’s even possible for the individual to pass these genetic changes on to future generations.

Epigenetic events can include DNA methylation, histone modifications, and non-protein coding RNAs. Accumulating evidence, from both animal and human studies, indicates that these epigenetic events can be influenced by environmental exposures such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, and heavy metals, among others. Epigenetics biomarkers can be used to identify the effects of past exposures.

For example, a study by Ho et al found epigenetic patterns associated with tobacco smoke, including gene hypermethylation and hypomethylation, specific histone modifications, epigenetic reprogramming of inflammatory cells, and down-regulation of some types of non-protein coding RNAs.

An article by Rothstein et al. explains the legal ramifications of epigenetics. The article provides an insightful summary of a leading precedent for epigenetic claims: product liability actions brought against the manufacturers of diethylstilbestrol (DES) by daughters and granddaughters of women who took the medication during pregnancy.

The scientific evidence indicates that epigenetics plays a role in the etiology of human disease, and environmental factors can influence epigenetic changes. But we are still learning about this relatively new field, so it’s application in the courtroom is ambiguous. Defense attorneys will attempt to identify epigenetic biomarkers that implicate an environmental agent. However, individuals are exposed to a variety of environmental agents throughout their lifetimes, making it difficult to unequivocally link a specific agent to a particular genetic change.

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