Arthritis costs $128 billion annually and is the most common cause of disability in the U.S., with 27 million Americans diagnosed with one type of the disease, osteoarthritis, alone, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In what could be a breakthrough in the practical application of epigenetic science, British scientists used human tissue samples to discover that those with osteoarthritis have a signature epigenetic change (DNA methylation) responsible for switching on and off a gene that produces a destructive enzyme called MMP13, according to a press release from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

The term epigenetics refers to the role environment—habits, diet, lifestyles and such—play in changing the expression of our genes.

“This enzyme is known to play a role in the destruction of joint cartilage, making MMP13 and the epigenetic changes that lead to its increased levels,” the release noted.

The research is running in the Federation’s journal, the FASEB Journal.

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