Creative Minds: A New Mechanism for Epigenetics?

Keith Maggert

Keith Maggert

To learn more about how DNA and inheritance works, Keith Maggert has spent much of his nearly 30 years as a researcher studying what takes place not just within the DNA genome but also the subtle modifications of it. That’s where a stable of enzymes add chemical marks to DNA, turning individual genes on or off without changing their underlying sequence. What’s really intrigued Maggert is these “epigenetic” modifications are maintained through cell division and can even get passed down from parent to child over many generations. Like many researchers, he wants to know how it happens.

Maggert thinks there’s more to the story than scientists have realized. Now an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, he suspects that a prominent subcellular structure in the nucleus called the nucleolus also exerts powerful epigenetic effects. What’s different about the nucleolus, Maggert proposes, is it doesn’t affect genes one by one, a focal point of current epigenetic research. He thinks under some circumstances its epigenetic effects can activate many previously silenced, or “off” genes at once, sending cells and individuals on a different path toward health or disease.

Maggert has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to pursue this potentially new paradigm. If correct, it would transform current thinking in the field and provide an exciting new perspective to track epigenetics and its contributions to a wide range of human diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.

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Random Mutations Play Major Role in Cancer

Cancer OddsWe humans are wired to search for a causative agent when something bad happens. When someone develops cancer, we seek a reason. Maybe cancer runs in the family. Or perhaps the person smoked, never wore sunscreen, or drank too much alcohol. At some level, those are reasonable assumptions, as genes, lifestyle, and environment do play important roles in cancer. But a new study claims that the reason why many people get cancer is simply just bad luck.

This bad luck occurs during the normal process of cell division that is essential to helping our bodies grow and remain healthy. Every time a cell divides, its 6 billion letters of DNA are copied, with a new copy going to each daughter cell. Typos inevitably occur during this duplication process, and the cell’s DNA proofreading mechanisms usually catch and correct these typos. However, every once in a while, a typo slips through—and if that misspelling happens to occur in certain key areas of the genome, it can drive a cell onto a pathway of uncontrolled growth that leads to cancer. In fact, according to a team of NIH-funded researchers, nearly two-thirds of DNA typos in human cancers arise in this random way.

The latest findings should help to reassure people being treated for many forms of cancer that they likely couldn’t have prevented their illness. They also serve as an important reminder that, in addition to working on better strategies for prevention, cancer researchers must continue to pursue innovative technologies for early detection and treatment.

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Regenerative Medicine: The Promise and Peril

Retinal pigment epithelial cells

Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells growing on a nanofiber scaffold (blue).
Credit: Sheldon Miller, Arvydas Maminishkis, Robert Fariss, and Kapil Bharti, National Eye Institute/NIH

Stem cells derived from a person’s own body have the potential to replace tissue damaged by a wide array of diseases. Now, two reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlight the promise—and the peril—of this rapidly advancing area of regenerative medicine. Both groups took aim at the same disorder: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common, progressive form of vision loss. Unfortunately for several patients, the results couldn’t have been more different.

In the first case, researchers in Japan took cells from the skin of a female volunteer with AMD and used them to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in the lab. Those iPSCs were coaxed into differentiating into cells that closely resemble those found near the macula, a tiny area in the center of the eye’s retina that is damaged in AMD. The lab-grown tissue, made of retinal pigment epithelial cells, was then transplanted into one of the woman’s eyes. While there was hope that there might be actual visual improvement, the main goal of this first in human clinical research project was to assess safety. The patient’s vision remained stable in the treated eye, no adverse events occurred, and the transplanted cells remained viable for more than a year.

Exciting stuff, but, as the second report shows, it is imperative that all human tests of regenerative approaches be designed and carried out with the utmost care and scientific rigor. In that instance, three elderly women with AMD each paid $5,000 to a Florida clinic to be injected in both eyes with a slurry of cells, including stem cells isolated from their own abdominal fat. The sad result? All of the women suffered severe and irreversible vision loss that left them legally or, in one case, completely blind.

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H3Africa: Fostering Collaboration

Osafo-Raji-Burke-Glover

Caption: Pioneers in building Africa’s genomic research capacity; front, Charlotte Osafo (l) and Yemi Raji; back, David Burke (l) and Tom Glover.
Credit: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

About a year ago, Tom Glover began sifting through a stack of applications from prospective students hoping to be admitted into the Master’s Degree Program in Human Genetics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Glover, the program’s director, got about halfway through the stack when he noticed applications from two physicians in West Africa: Charlotte Osafo from Ghana, and Yemi Raji from Nigeria. Both were kidney specialists in their 40s, and neither had formal training in genomics or molecular biology, which are normally requirements for entry into the program.

Glover’s first instinct was to disregard the applications. But he noticed the doctors were affiliated with the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative, which is co-supported by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health Common Fund, and aims in part to build the expertise to carry out genomics research across the continent of Africa. (I am proud to have had a personal hand in the initial steps that led to the founding of H3Africa.) Glover held onto the two applications and, after much internal discussion, Osafo and Raji were admitted to the Master’s Program. But there were important stipulations: they had to arrive early to undergo “boot camp” in genomics and molecular biology and also extend their coursework over an extra term.

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