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Gene Genie: The struggle of cell biologist Bruce Lipton

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Dr Bruce Lipton is at the vanguard of epigenetics

Dr Bruce Lipton is at the vanguard of epigenetics

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Dr Bruce Lipton is at the vanguard of epigenetics

Bruce Lipton is a talker. He's an author and cell biologist primarily, doing some pretty radical research in that field for over four decades. But he's a talker, too. An American currently living in New Zealand, he must have given hundreds, thousands, of speeches: university lectures, book tours, public addresses like the one he's doing in Dublin on May 28.

So in interviews, he's chatty, confident, fluid, zippy. It makes the dictaphone a nightmare to transcribe, but Bruce has a lot of interesting things to say.

His basic premise – this is complicated stuff which can't really be reduced to a handful of sentences, but bear with me – is that our genes don't control us: we control them. It's called epigenetics, although when he began his research the term wasn't used. We're born with a certain combination of genes, yes, but how and whether they're activated depends greatly on our frame of mind.

So, for instance, on medicine's famous placebo effect – and its lesser-known antithesis, nocebo – Bruce says: "Between one-third and two-thirds of all healing is down to the placebo effect, not therapies, drugs or surgery. The placebo is just a sugar-pill – the patient is healed by the belief they'll get better: positive thinking.

"The nocebo effect is equally powerful, caused by negative thoughts. The belief you have a terminal illness can actually cause you to die, and negative thinking is much more common.

"And it's not just your thoughts, it's those around you. I could read your brain activity through MEG, an upgrade on EEG, which doesn't actually touch the head – it's reading your thoughts from outside your head. Your brain sends out vibrations all the time, and your thoughts affect your life and other people's. They pick up these thoughts and get changed by them. That's why, say, a pacifist gets caught up in a riot situation. It's a field of vibrations – you can 'feel' someone else's thoughts when close to them.

"So we need other people to believe in a 'miracle' for it to happen. If others think something isn't possible, we may not be able to do it, being around them."

If this sounds a bit wishy-washy/New Agey, it's important to note Dr Lipton is markedly different from others peddling ostensibly similar lines. He's a scientist, for starters, with almost half-a-century experience in cell biology and research across a broad range of topics, including muscular dystrophy, cloning, cell behaviour and tissue transplantation. And the science sounds plausible to a layman like me.

Possibly his most seminal piece of research was carried out at Stanford, between 1987 and 1992, which showed the environment, operating through cell membranes, turns our genes on or off. This basically kick-started the field of epigenetics, but Bruce experienced stiff resistance from a hidebound establishment.

"While everyone was looking at genes," he explains, "my research took off in a new direction – how environment influences genetic activity. Stem-cells can become any tissue in the body and we all have millions of them, to replace damaged cells. I'd put one in a petri dish and it would divide every 10-12 hours. After a week I'd have 50,000, all genetically identical. I'd split those into three groups, change the environmental chemistry in each dish – a culture medium with nutrients, the equivalent of blood – and the different dishes would form muscle, bone, fat. So it couldn't have been genes controlling the fate of those cells, they were all the same. The only difference was environment.

"Everyone is programmed with genes, but the term 'genetic control' is false. Genes don't control anything, they're just blueprints. Whereas 'epigenetic control' – control above the genes – turns everything on its head. The environment influences the selection and reading of genes. A person's health isn't generally a reflection of genes, but how their environment is influencing them. Genes are the direct cause of less than 1pc of diseases: 99pc is how we respond to the world."

Humans are comprised of some 50 trillion cells, and Dr Lipton describes these little blighters as the "living organisms; a person, by absolute definition, is a community of cells. We're the equivalent of a skin-covered petri dish, and our blood is the culture medium, nourishing cells and containing the information that controls them. The brain is responsible for the composition of this culture, and that depends on what your mind perceives.

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"Say you see someone you love – the brain chemistry includes wonderful things like dopamine, a pleasure chemical, or vasopressin, which makes you feel attractive, plus growth hormones. When people fall in love they feel happier, more beautiful, full of life, because of what the brain releases. Whereas if a person sees something that scares them, the brain releases stress hormones and inflammatory agents. Those make the cells stop growing and eventually die.

"It's mind-body. Epigenetics doesn't change the genetic code, it changes how that's read. Perfectly normal genes can result in cancer or death. Vice-versa, in the right environment, mutant genes won't be expressed. Genes are equivalent to blueprints, epigenetics is the contractor. They change the assembly, the structure."

He argues that this applies even to the biggies, like cancer.

"Absolutely, people cure themselves of cancer all the time through a positive mental attitude – it's called spontaneous remission. Those who recognise that their lives are really what caused the cancer, and take responsibility for the disease, have the best recovery rates. Whereas someone else will just blame their genes and think there's nothing they can do about this."

Of course, it must be stressed that this thinking is very controversial. Many medical professionals maintain it's dangerous to "believe" you can cure yourself of a serious disease like cancer, particularly if this mind-set leads to rejection of "mainstream" treatments like chemotherapy.

Apple founder Steve Jobs, for instance, who died of cancer in 2011, was reported to have regretted favouring "alternative" treatments. His biographer Walter Isaacson said Jobs believed "if you don't want something to exist, you can have magical thinking ... it had worked for him in the past. (But) he regretted it. I think he felt he should have been operated on sooner".

Bruce recalls how both his own training, and the medical establishment, kicked against accepting his ground-breaking revelations on epigenetics. "I was the one guy saying that genes don't control life; everyone else challenged the hell out of it. I got nervous, being looked at by all my colleagues as if I was a crazy person! Others didn't want to deal with this evidence, because it went against their beliefs. I started to think maybe I really was nuts.

"But I could repeat the experiment and get the same results, day after day. Nobody was able to say I was actually wrong, all they'd say was: 'Well, that's not the way we're thinking'. They couldn't disprove it. Finally epigenetics became accepted, so I guess I was 20 years ahead of the curve.

"All this stuff is provable. I get called a pseudo-scientist or a charlatan, but those critics aren't at the cutting-edge of science. It's gone over the edge in terms of epigenetics, the most important research in the world right now, although it's only being drip-fed to the public.

"But attitudes are changing, both in medicine and the public mind. People are much more into complementary medicine now too, and often get results they couldn't in the conventional arena. But science isn't engaging with this alternative healing because it's not in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry. They manipulate the medical industry, control med schools. If you step outside their standard practices you can lose your licence."

His latest book, 'The Honeymoon Effect', tries to explain why people look and feel healthier and more attractive after falling in love – and how to hold onto that once love's first blush fades.

'When people fall in love, their lives change profoundly, immediately. They get healthier. They have abundant energy – you make love for days without stopping for food or sleep. Life is so beautiful and exciting that people can't wait for the next day.

"This isn't an accident or coincidence. People create the experience themselves, but we're also responsible for losing it. For almost everyone the honeymoon effect wears off after a short time. But if you understand how you created it, you can manifest that special experience for the rest of your life."

Essentially – apologies again for the contraction of a complex subject – it's about being mindful, living in the present and, most importantly, undoing the subconscious programming each of us "downloaded" during childhood, and indeed, the last trimester in our mother's womb.

To be honest, he kind of lost me during this bit. I don't necessarily buy everything he puts forward, but I buy enough of it. His reasoning is solid and, as mentioned, the science behind epigenetics is straightforward and seems inarguable.

Besides, ultimately there's no harm in thinking good thoughts instead of depressing ones. It may or may not help avert cancer, but it'll certainly make your day nicer.

Dr Bruce Lipton speaks at the Stillorgan Park Hotel, Dublin on May 28; See seminars.ie for more


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