Biopolitics and Epigenetics: Q & A with Charles Dupras

“Epigenetics” and “neoliberalism” are eye-catching buzzwords in (typically separate) academic niches. However, to many outside the academy, the two tongue-twisters are nebulous and their everyday relevance ill-defined.

Charles Dupras joins the conversation on Bioethics Forum to say more about an article, “Epigenetics in the Neoliberal ‘Regime of Truth,’” that he co-wrote with Vardit Ravitsky in the January – February issue of the Hastings Center Report. I asked Dupras to explain what we gain from the biopolitical perspective they offer on the translation of epigenetic knowledge.  Dupras is a PhD candidate in bioethics at the University of Montreal. Ravitsky teaches in the bioethics program at the University of Montreal and directs the Ethics and Health Branch of the Center for Research in Ethics.

Epigenetics refers to molecular mechanisms that influence the expression of genes, sometimes activating genes and sometimes silencing them. Part of what’s fascinating about these mechanisms is that they can occur in response to social and environmental factors. But they can also be heritable: a gene silenced in a parent may remain silenced in the person’s child. For this reason, epigenetics bridges the gap between individuals’ genetics and their environment.

“Epigenetics could provide the missing molecular evidence of the importance of using public policy to reduce the incidence and prevalence of common diseases,” Dupras and Ravitsky write. However, they caution against the risk that a “clinical translation” will garner more attention and public resources than a “policy translation” of epigenetic knowledge.

Epigenetics has the potential to mobilize political will toward remedying social inequities resulting in common public health problems, but Dupras and Ravitsky worry about two sociological trends that might impede the policy translation of epigenetics: molecularization and biomedicalization.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.