Johns Hopkins Establishing Epigenetics Center

By Alex Dominguez, Associated Press
Baltimore – The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine will use a five-year, $5 million federal grant to establish a center to study epigenetics, an emerging field dealing with so-called “marks” on the genome.Epigenetics could be as important for some diseases as changes in genes
are for others.

Just as changes in the sequence of a genome can cause diseases such
as cancer, the marks also can be responsible for disease. The marks can be
changes in the DNA, other than the sequence of its base pairs, or in the
proteins the DNA is wrapped around, said Dr. Andrew Feinberg, the head of
the center.

Epigenetics has already been linked to cancer in humans, and the
researchers will now look for links to other diseases, Feinberg said.

“Epigenetics doesn’t underlie all human disease, but we definitely
need to develop the technology to figure out when and where epigenetic
changes do influence health and disease,” Feinberg said.

Epigenetics could be as important for some diseases as changes in genes are for others, the researcher said.

“People are just starting to understand what is the basis of common,
complex diseases that aren’t caused by a clear, very strong transmission
from parent to child, that show complicated patterns of inheritance,”
Feinberg said.

The center will first develop technology to speed identification of
epigenetic marks and their locations in the genome. The researchers also
plan to look into whether and how epigenetic marks shift over time and how
marks differ from parent to child.

While a person’s genetic sequence is essentially fixed for life, epigenetic marks are believed to be more subject to change, Feinberg said.

The first groups to be studied will be families, comprising at least a “trio” of two parents and one child, who are taking part in studies looking for genetic clues to the causes of autism and bipolar disorder.

Participants in a 30-year effort of the Icelandic Heart Foundation will also be
studied, the school said.

The new Center for the Epigenetics of Common Human Disease is being
funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National
Institute of Mental Health.

NHGRI Director Francis S. Collins said decoding the genome was “just
the first step in our quest to understand the complexities of the biological role, and learning more about these effects is essential to deciphering the mysteries of human health and disease,” Collins said.

“So, we are thrilled that Johns Hopkins has pulled together this world-class team of researchers to move this important field forward.”

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