Researchers from around the region recently celebrated the burgeoning field of epigenetics at the 17th annual Beckman Symposium.
City of Hope was the perfect place for the day-long gathering on Nov. 9, which was attended by about 500 researchers, because two of the field’s pioneers — Art Riggs, Ph.D., and the late Susumu Ohno, Ph.D. — did research at the campus in the 1970s that, in part, established the modern concept of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is a branch of biology that investigates how changes in the way that DNA strands are wrapped or coiled affect whether genes are silent or active. Scientists today have great interest in these changes in DNA “packaging” because of the changes’ association with stem cell development, diabetes, aging and cancer, among other areas.
Riggs began the day with a review of landmark experiments in the field, which some may consider “new.” Riggs emphasized that the ideas behind epigenetics are as old as Aristotle; but what is new is the skyrocketing numbers of publications in the field.
Seven experts who have contributed to that rise soon followed with descriptions of their work.
Jeannie Lee, M.D., Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, discussed the textbook example of epigenetic gene regulation: how the body inactivates the extra X chromosome carried by female mammals. Before her talk, Lee paid tribute to City of Hope’s Ohno, one of the first investigators to recognize that women’s second X chromosome, which appears crumpled up when viewed microscopically, is actually inactive. Ohno died in 2000.
Several presentations centered on a scientifically “hot” form of epigenetic change called histone methylation. In talks focusing on genes regulating stem cell development, Yi Zhang, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, and Bradley Bernstein, M.D., Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, described how genes are either activated or silenced depending on where a methyl group is added to proteins called histones, around which DNA is wrapped.
Reporting that drugs affecting different types of epigenetic changes have already received federal approval against some cancers, the University of Southern California’s Peter Jones, Ph.D., then noted that histone methylation inhibitors can kill cancer cells in a dish — possibly by unmasking genes that protect cells from cancer, hinting that they could be the next generation of epigenetic cancer therapies.
Jones recalled that 25 years ago, he and Riggs collaborated on the first-ever review article about the relationship of cancer to epigenetics.
Based on the day’s talks, the 2007 version of such a review would be much thicker.
Support for the meeting came from the Beckman Endowment, Millipore and Active Motif.