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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Precision Oncology: Epigenetic Patterns Predict Glioblastoma Outcomes

Brain scan analysis

Caption: Oncologists review a close-up image of a brain tumor (green dot).
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Scientists have spent much time and energy mapping the many DNA misspellings that can transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. But recently it has become increasingly clear that changes to the DNA sequence itself are not the only culprits. Cancer can also be driven by epigenetic changes to DNA—modifications to chemical marks on the genome don’t alter the sequence of the DNA molecule, but act to influence gene activity. A prime example of this can been seen in glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer that strikes about 12,000 Americans each year.

In fact, an NIH-funded research team recently published in Nature Communications the most complete portrait to date of the epigenetic patterns characteristic of the glioblastoma genome [1]. Among their findings were patterns associated with how long patients survived after the cancer was detected. While far more research is needed, the findings highlight the potential of epigenetic information to help doctors devise more precise ways of diagnosing, treating, and perhaps even preventing glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

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Creative Minds: Building the RNA Toolbox

Mice

Caption: Genetically identical mice. The Agouti gene is active in the yellow mouse and inactive in the brown mouse.
Credit: Dana Dolinoy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Randy Jirtle, Duke University, Durham, NC

Step inside the lab of Dana Dolinoy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and you’re sure to hear conversations that include the rather strange word “agouti” (uh-goo-tee). In this context, it’s a name given to a strain of laboratory mice that arose decades ago from a random mutation in the Agouti gene, which is normally expressed only transiently in hair follicles. The mutation causes the gene to be turned on, or expressed, continuously in all cell types, producing mice that are yellow, obese, and unusually prone to developing diabetes and cancer. As it turns out, these mutant mice and the gene they have pointed to are more valuable than ever today because they offer Dolinoy and other researchers an excellent model for studying the rapidly emerging field of epigenomics.

The genome of the mouse, just as for the human, is the complete DNA instruction book; it contains the coding information for building the proteins that carry out a variety of functions in a cell. But modifications to the DNA determine its function, and these are collectively referred to as the epigenome. The epigenome is made up of chemical tags and proteins that can attach to the DNA and direct such actions as turning genes on or off, thereby controlling the production of proteins in particular cells. These tags have different patterns in each cell type, helping to explain, for example, why a kidney and a skin cell can behave so differently when they share the same DNA.

Some types of genes, including Agouti, are particularly vulnerable to epigenomic effects. In fact, Dolinoy has discovered that exposing normal, wild-type (brown) mice to certain chemicals and dietary factors during pregnancy can switch on the Agouti gene in their developing offspring, turning their coats yellow and their health poor. Dolinoy says these experiments raise much larger questions: If researchers discover populations of humans that have been exposed to lifestyle or environmental factors that modify their epigenomes in ways that may possibly contribute to risk for certain diseases, can the modification be passed on to their children and grandchildren (referred to as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a controversial topic)? If so, how can we develop the high-precision tools needed to better understand and perhaps even reduce such risks? The University of Michigan researcher received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to undertake that challenge.

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Largest Study Yet Shows Mother’s Smoking Changes Baby’s Epigenome

Pregnant woman smoking

Credit: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Despite years of public health campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking when pregnant, many women are unaware of the risk or find themselves unable to quit. As a result, far too many babies are still being exposed in the womb to toxins that enter their mothers’ bloodstreams when they inhale cigarette smoke. Among the many infant and child health problems that have been linked to maternal smoking are premature birth, low birth weight, asthma, reduced lung function, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and cleft lip and/or palate.

Now, a large international study involving NIH-supported researchers provides a biological mechanism that may explain how exposure to cigarette toxins during fetal development can produce these health problems [1]. That evidence centers on the impact of the toxins on the epigenome of the infant’s body tissues. The epigenome refers to chemical modifications of DNA (particularly methylation of cytosines), as well as proteins that bind to DNA and affect its function. The genome of an individual is the same in all cells of their body, but the epigenome determines whether genes are turned on or off in particular cells. The study found significant differences between the epigenetic patterns of babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy and those born to non-smokers, with many of the differences affecting genes known to play key roles in the development of the lungs, face, and nervous system.

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Hitting the Right Target? Lab Studies Suggest Epigenetic Drug May Fight Childhood Brain Cancer

Faces of DIPG

Caption: Remembering a few of the many children who’ve died of DIPG; Left, Lyla Nsouli and parents; upper right, Andrew Smith and mom; lower right, Alexis Agin and parents.
Credits: Nsouli, Smith, and Agin families

Every year in the United States, several hundred children and their families receive a devastating diagnosis: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Sadly, this inoperable tumor of the brain stem, little known by the public, is almost always fatal, and efforts to develop life-saving treatments have been hampered by a lack of molecular data to identify agents that might specifically target DIPG. In fact, more than 200 clinical trials of potential drugs have been conducted in DIPG patients without any success.

Now, using cell lines and mouse models created with tumor tissue donated by 16 DIPG patients, an international research coalition has gained a deeper understanding of this childhood brain cancer at the molecular level. These new preclinical tools have also opened the door to identifying more precise targets for DIPG therapy, including the exciting possibility of using a drug already approved for another type of cancer.

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