Investigating the Role of Epigenetics in Cancer

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Investigating the Role of Epigenetics in Cancer

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Research Horizons, July 09 - While many biologists investigate cancer genetics - mutations in DNA sequences that cause the disease - a growing group of biologists is examining the role of cancer epigenetics, which are changes that contribute to malignancy without causing changes in DNA sequences.

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  • Yuhong Fan :: Photo By Gary Meek Yuhong Fan :: Photo By Gary Meek
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Research Horizons, July 09 - While many biologists investigate cancer genetics - mutations in DNA sequences that cause the disease - a growing group of biologists is examining the role of cancer epigenetics, which are changes that contribute to malignancy without causing changes in DNA sequences.

Yuhong Fan, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Biology, believes that the scientific field of epigenetics may help shape the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"Cancer cells have drastically different epigenetic patterns compared to normal cells," explains Fan, who is also a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar. "Many epigenetic changes may appear prior to the development of invasive cancer, so I think that doctors might one day be able to detect epigenetic markers for cancer before a tumor appears."

Epigenetic studies concentrate on the way the genome is marked and packaged inside a cell's nucleus. Much of Fan's research focuses on the role of H1 linker histones, a family of 10 proteins that helps to package the DNA within chromosomes.

Fan and Arthur Skoultchi, chair of the Department of Cell Biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York's Yeshiva University, previously observed the effects of partially reducing H1 levels in mice. The work showed that H1 histones are important to an organism's normal development. Expanding on these findings, Fan recently teamed with John McDonald, chief scientist of the Ovarian Cancer Institute and associate dean for biology development in the School of Biology, to determine if the multiple H1 subtypes are regulated differently in benign and malignant ovarian cancer tissues.

"We found that some of the H1 subtypes were expressed at significantly higher levels in the cancerous tissue compared to the benign tissue and some were expressed at significantly lower levels," notes Fan. "The most remarkable finding was that these differences, whether increases or decreases, were consistent among multiple samples."

With this knowledge, Fan's next step is to find out what genes and functions are affected by changes in expression of each subtype. To do this, her group plans to change the level of each H1 subtype in cancer cell culture and monitor what happens to cell growth and cell fate.

"We hope that measuring the expression level of one or more of these H1 subtypes can be used as an epigenetic biomarker for the cancer diagnosis of the future," adds Fan. "Since the expression patterns are consistent, you could easily measure a few epigenetic characteristics, rather than looking at thousands of genes."

Funding for Fan's research is provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Georgia Cancer Coalition.

Article By: Abby Vogel
Photos By: Gary Meek

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  • Created By: Troy Hilley
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Aug 12, 2009 - 8:00pm
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:11pm