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Epigenetic changes: the switches in our genome

It is not only our genes that determine who we are. Our environment has strong impact on our health and aging process and, in fact, is capable of influencing our genome. Among all the changes caused by the environment, there are those that generate mutations, as they modify the sequence of the genetic code – the “alphabet” that our DNA uses and that defines us as we are. But there are also changes to our genome that do not cause mutations, and these are known as epigenetic changes.  Although these mechanisms do not modify the genetic code, they still have the potential to strongly influence the way in which our genes are expressed. There are different epigenetic mechanisms, of which one is the chemical modification (methylation) of certain components of DNA, turning genes on or off, like a switch. These variations, among others, cause differences between people; differences that may be key to understanding some diseases.

The relationship between epigenetics and viral infections

Epigenetics can be influenced by various factors, including environmental factors such as viral infections. When a virus infects a cell, it can trigger changes in the cell’s epigenetic mechanisms, which can affect the expression of genes involved in immune response and other cellular processes. For example, some viruses can cause changes to the methylation patterns on DNA, which can affect gene expression and may contribute to the development of diseases and their related clinical outcomes. EPIVINF studies the relationship between epigenetics processes and HIV and SARS-CoV-2 infections, but its results may be extrapolated to other viral infections.

Regarding HIV, its viral latency allows the virus to persist in the host, and may lead to several long-term issues that include exhaustion of immune response, co-morbidities and neurological complications, among others. On the other side, SARS-Cov-2 infection has been reported to affect many organ systems, including the brain and certainly the adaptative immune system. Although this infection, unlike HIV, is normally solved within days to weeks, it has also been linked to long-lasting COVID-19 disease with a wide range of symptoms, vaguely referred to as “long-COVID” or “post-acute COVID-19 syndrome (PACS)”. Although there are differences in viral persistence between both infections, there are also a number of parallels between the two infections that could be responsible for their long-term disease evolution. EPIVINF aims to understand whether SARS-CoV-2 and HIV might both severely impact the epigenetic control of host genes, which can drive the immunological and neurological disturbances observed in the long-term outcome of these infections.

New therapeutic strategies and diagnostic/prognostic tools for HIV and SARS-CoV-2 infections

In recent years, scientists have discovered that epigenetic changes can serve as biomarkers for a variety of diseases, including cancer and neurological disorders. By analyzing these changes, doctors may be able to diagnose diseases earlier and develop more personalized treatment plans.

In addition to serving as biomarkers, epigenetics is also being explored as a potential therapeutic strategy. Scientists are studying drugs that can target and reverse harmful epigenetic changes, with the goal of treating diseases at the root cause rather than just managing symptoms.

The ambition of the EPIVINF researchers is that the results of the project could determine epigenetic signatures that can be used as biomarkers for the HIV and SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis or as a predictor of disease progression/severity. In addition to using epigenetics in this sense, the team aims to use these signals as therapeutic targets and design strategies to modify epigenetic alterations to prevent or treat Covid-19 or HIV infection.