MODERATOR: Bill Blakemore
PARTICIPANTS: Frances A. Champagne, Nita A. Farahany, Lone Frank, Julie Herbstman, Jean-Pierre Issa, Randy L. Jirtle
PROGRAM DATE: Sunday, June 2, 2013

Epigenetic discoveries reveal that environmental, dietary, behavioral, and medical experiences can significantly affect the development of an individual and sometimes their offspring. Identification of targets for epigenetic therapy is becoming a public health priority. As we trace epigenetic health problems back, will we begin to point a finger? Who takes responsibility for epigenetic changes? Explore the implications in ethics, society, and the law.

The World Science Festival’s annual salon series offers in-depth conversations with leading scientists, extending the discussion of the Festival’s premiere public programs to graduate students, postdocs, faculty and well-informed members of the general public.

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Bill Blakemore
News Correspondent

Bill Blakemore became a reporter for ABC News 45 years ago, covering a wide variety of stories. He spearheaded ABC’s coverage of global warming, traveling from the tropics to polar regions to report on its impacts, dangers, and possible remedies. Overseas he has covered a dozen wars or major conflicts, including the Black September, Bangladesh, 1973 Arab-Israeli, Iranian and Beirut civil wars, as well as the Iraq wars (from Baghdad), and the Afghan/Taliban war. On 9/11, he reached Ground Zero before the towers fell. He was ABC’s Rome bureau chief 1978-1984, traveled extensively with John Paul II and wrote several documentaries and the Encyclopaedia Britannica article about him. Since 1984, he’s been based in New York, where he also served as education correspondent. He began focusing on biodiversity, extinctions, and global warming in 2004, as well as the emerging sciences of play behavior and animal intelligence, and hosted ABC’s Nature’s Edge until 2012. He has won most major broadcast journalism awards. He currently writes and lectures on the journalistic profession, the “Many Psychologies of Global Warming,” and the cinematic art of Stanley Kubrick.


Behavioral Scientist

Frances A. Champagne is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University. Champagne received a master’s degree in psychiatry in 1999 and a doctoral degree in neuroscience in 2004 from McGill University. Champagne’s research group explores the impact of experiences (stress, toxins, and social interactions) on the brain and behavior, as well as the role of epigenetic mechanisms in the interplay between environments and gene activity. The epigenetic effects of environmental experiences is also explored across generations, with a particular focus on how mother-infant interactions shape neurobiology of offspring and grand-offspring. Champagne’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and involves both basic research and translational studies to determine the health consequences of the environment.

Bioethicist, Law Professor

Nita A. Farahany is a Professor of Law & Philosophy at Duke University and the director of Duke Science & Society. In 2010, she was appointed by President Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and continues to serve as a member. She is a widely published scholar on the ethical, legal, and social implications of the biosciences and emerging technologies. Farahany is an elected member of the American Law Institute, a board member of the International Neuroethics Society and the Center for Responsible Brainwave Technologies, a member of the Law and Ethics Advisory Panel as part of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University, and a co-editor in chief of the Journal of Law and the Biosciences. Farahany holds an AB (genetics) from Dartmouth College, and an ALM (biology) from Harvard University, and a JD, MA, and Ph.D. (philosophy) from Duke University.

Journalist and Author

Lone Frank is an award winning science journalist and author with a Ph.D. in neurobiology and a background in biomedical research. A native of Denmark, she lives in Copenhagen and is a well-known voice in European debates relating to science, technology, and society. She is widely invited as a public speaker and her writings have appeared in publications such as Science and Nature as well as a range of international newspapers and magazines. Frank regularly appears as a commentator on Danish radio and television and she has co-produced and presented a number of science documentaries for the Danish National Broadcasting Corporation. Her latest books are Mindfield and My Beautiful Genome which have both won critical acclaim and been translated into several languages. My Beautiful Genome was shortlisted for The Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books.


Trained as an epidemiologist, Julie Herbstman’s research focuses on the impact of prenatal exposures to environmental pollutants, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on child growth and development. She has also been involved in research exploring the long-term environmental health impact of exposure to pollutants from the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Most recently, she collaborates on the Columbia Children?s Center?s work involving the integration of epigenetic biomarkers to explore the mechanistic pathway between prenatal exposures and disease risk.

Molecular Biologist

Jean-Pierre Issa is a professor of medicine and director at Fels Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Biology at Temple University. Issa’s laboratory has made important contributions to the understanding of the importance of epigenetics in the pathophysiology and treatment of cancer. His lab’s discoveries include the effects of aging and inflammation on promoter DNA methylation, the CpG Island Methylator Phenotype in multiple cancers, and the interrelations between aberrant DNA methylation and histone modifications in cancer. Starting in 2000, his group initiated laboratory research inspired clinical trials that showed that low doses of hypomethylating drugs specifically target DNA methylation and are optimal in the treatment of leukemias. This work contributed to the FDA approval of decitabine, and led to a large number of epigenetic therapy clinical trials in different malignancies.

Issa’s research focuses on mechanisms of epigenetic alterations in aging and cancer, translation of epigenomic studies for Precision Medicine, development of drugs for reprogramming the epigenome, and clinical trials of epigenetic therapy in cancer. His research has been recognized by numerous awards including a Sidney Kimmell Foundation Scholar Award, election to the American Society of Clinical Investigation, an American Cancer Society clinical research professorship, the Faculty Achievement Award in Basic Research from MD Anderson and the Rosenthal Award.


Randy Jirtle headed the epigenetics and imprinting laboratory at Duke University until 2012. He is presently a visiting professor at McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jirtle’s research interests are in epigenetics, genomic imprinting, and the fetal origins of disease susceptibility. He has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles, and was a featured scientist on the NOVA program entitled Ghost in Your Genes. He was invited to speak at the 2004 and 2011 Nobel Symposia on epigenetics. He was honored in 2006 with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Jirtle was nominated for the 2007 Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” He was the inaugural recipient of the Epigenetic Medicine Award in 2008, and received the STARS Lecture Award in Nutrition and Cancer from the NCI in 2009. This year Jirtle will publish two books on environmental epigenomics.