Cancer epigenetics: Breakthrough in ID’ing target genes

Jade Boyd

HOUSTON — Cancer is usually attributed to faulty genes, but growing evidence from the field of cancer epigenetics indicates a key role for the gene “silencing” proteins that stably turn genes off inside the cell nucleus. A new study from Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) promises to speed research in the field by rapidly identifying the genes that epigenetic proteins can target for silencing.

The study, which appears this week in Nucleic Acids Research, shows how a new computer program called EpiPredictor can search any genome to identify specific genes affected by epigenetic proteins. The research includes detailed experimental findings that verify EpiPredictor’s results. The research was funded in part by the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

“Cancer epigenetics is a new field, and we are still struggling with the basics,” said lead investigator Jianpeng Ma, professor of bioengineering at Rice and the Lodwick T. Bolin Professor of Biochemistry at BCM. “It’s something like a board game. Until now, we’ve understood some of the rules and seen a few of the pieces, but the game board itself has been mostly blank. EpiPredictor lets everyone see the board. It really changes things.”

While many cancers have been linked to mutations in the DNA sequence of particular genes, epigenetic changes do not involve genetic mutations. Instead, epigenetics allows two cells with identical DNA sequences to behave in wholly different ways. Epigenetic proteins effectively edit the genome by turning off genes that are not needed. This editing process is what allows human beings to have specialized cells — like nerve cells, bone cells and blood cells — that look and behave differently, even though they share the same DNA.

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