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Cancer Population Epigenetics Research

The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University has launched a new Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative, which is a joint venture with the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The research initiative will unite Northwestern's experts in the new and exciting field of epigenetics with:

  • Cutting-edge laboratory technologies
  • In-depth biological and population data collected from people around the world
  • Methodological advances in "big data" analysis to develop new, precision medicine-style targets for cancer early detection, prevention and treatment to benefit patients with cancer and their families worldwide

Led by Lifang Hou, MD, PhD, the Lurie Cancer Center's director of Global Health and a member of the National Cancer Institute's Blue Ribbon Panel for former Vice President Biden's Cancer Moonshot Initiative, the initiative aims to expand Northwestern's ability to study human diseases in numerous cancer populations. It is at the forefront of scientific efforts to develop new biological tools for detecting cancer and to study the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics.

We all know that the code of our DNA is important for health and susceptibility to disease. But what is increasingly clear is that how our DNA is modified and expressed is even more important than the original DNA code itself. The goal of the initiative is to identify changes on a molecular level that could serve as "early warning" signals for a disease in its earliest stages of development, or as a metric of an individual's long-term behaviors and lifestyle that affect health status (good and bad). In time, Dr. Hou and her colleagues also hope to identify epigenetic targets that could be used to stop chronic diseases before they even develop. This is particularly true of cancers, where epigenetic dysregulation is considered a hallmark of the disease.

Modulating the Genetic 'Signal'

Epigenetics is the study of ways in which the "packaging" of our genetic code (DNA) can be changed — changing the way our genes function without actually altering DNA itself. Scientists have already identified multiple ways in which this can occur by looking at the mechanisms that can interact with your environment and lifestyle, and with one another, to prevent or increase the risk of disease. One of cancer's defining characteristics is widespread dysfunction in these epigenetic mechanisms. This dysfunction stands in stark contrast to the DNA in healthy cells. Thus, our researchers at the Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative hope that epigenetics could someday be used as the basis for a blood test for cancer.

Epigenetics can also determine your biological age — measuring 'wear and tear' on your cells and your DNA. Our investigators are currently exploring what it means when this biological age (also known as epigenetic age) is out of sync with your chronological age. They are also studying what this means for disease prediction and prevention.

In addition, unlike mutations also found in the DNA of cancer cells, epigenetic dysfunction can be reversed. Eventually, scientists will be able to learn how to manipulate these sorts of changes to produce numerous effects on the cellular and even molecular levels. This could have any number of applications in cancer research and treatment, up to and including ways in which physicians could block cancer cells from metastasizing through the body, and even induce them to self-destruct without causing damage to healthy tissue. The Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative is currently exploring a number of these biological markers and their trajectories in the years before a patient gets a cancer diagnosis. Our investigators also are examining the interplay between epigenetics and genetic markers related to age, and the ways in which these relationships change as you get older, in the hopes of developing a blood test for measuring biological age. This also could serve as another early detection marker of cancer.

You Are What You Eat

In close collaboration with nutritional researchers at Northwestern, the Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative also is actively expanding its efforts to look at the role that food and similar everyday lifestyle behaviors (such as physical activity) play in these epigenetic mechanisms. For years, doctors and their patients have struggled to understand the complex and, at times, contradictory nature of the published research linking nutrition to many kinds of diseases. These published recommendations can sometimes reverse themselves after decades of being the accepted, conventional wisdom.

Epigenetics offers us the opportunity to change that. By identifying the ways and specific parts of the DNA in which nutrition, exercise, and other everyday activities can alter the epigenetic expression of genes, scientists can begin to understand the precise molecular pathways underlying the links between lifestyle and disease development. This will allow for targeted lifestyle recommendations such as daily allowances designed specifically with your age, gender, race, and other characteristics in mind that will reduce the occurrence of disease. A better understanding of how these processes interact will also open the door to new drugs, based on the foods you eat and things you do every day, which can give physicians effective new options against cancer and other diseases.

Bringing Populations Together for Science

In order to study human disease, we need data from real human populations. The larger and more diverse these populations are, the better and more sophisticated analyses population scientists can perform. Furthermore, as new and better technologies for measuring epigenetic changes come to market, we will be able to collect more and more data at an increasingly cheaper cost. This is essential as population studies typically run on a budget.

Already, faculty members within the Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative have developed a worldwide reputation as specialists in the unique challenges of studying epigenetics in large populations. We have entered into collaborations with research groups inside and outside of Northwestern to provide them with scientific support. Not only does this cement Northwestern's reputation as a hub of epigenetic expertise and research, but it allows our research team to take advantage of ready-to-use biological samples from around the world. Our laboratory has human epigenetic data from over 20,000 individuals from backgrounds including Americans (both Caucasians and minorities), Europeans, Africans, Arabs and Asians. This work also includes subpopulations that can teach us about specific aspects of epigenetic markers including their heritability (in Amish and neonatal populations) and their relationship to the environment (in veterans).

A fully-supported Cancer Population Epigenetics research initiative will greatly enhance the Lurie Cancer Center's ability to conduct epigenetic studies and provide scientific support to cancer researchers and clinicians. Our aim is to scale-up our efforts to the level demanded by both the sheer quantity of data represented by the "new frontier" of epigenetics, as well as the enormity of the task presented to cancer researchers by the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. We hope to expand our current facilities to give us the flexibility to deploy innovative new technologies, such as 5-hydroxymethylation or 5hmc, single-cell technologies and liquid biopsies. Ultimately, our goal is to leap to the forefront of this exciting new area of cancer research and lead the field of population epigenetics into the development of epigenetic markers as targets for cancer prevention.

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