A Medical Device Daily

Bing Ren, PhD, associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and head of the Laboratory of Gene Regulation at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (San Diego), was recently selected as one of four grant recipients in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Roadmap's Epigenomics Program, an initiative developed to study stable genetic modifications that affect and alter the behavior of genes across the human genome.

The five-year, $16.6 million grant will support the San Diego Epigenome Center at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at UC San Diego, one of four centers in the country called Reference Epigenome Mapping Centers (REMC) as part of an overall five-year, $190 million NIH program.

Ren's grant will support interdisciplinary work to comprehensively map elements of the human epigenome, which Ren describes as "like an added dimension to the DNA string.

"The human epigenome is the next frontier of genomic research," said Ren. "Just as the Human Genome Project provided a picture of the sequence of genomes, our work will help create a map of the processes that impact gene regulation – what turns genes on and off – in order to improve our understanding of what drives human development and disease."

The epigenome plays a pivotal role in cellular differentiation, tissue formation and aging by regulating the transcriptional potential of the genome, specifying when and where genes are activated or expressed.

Epigenetic processes, such as modifications to DNA-associated proteins called histones, control genetic activity by changing the three-dimensional structure of chromosomes. Diet and exposure to environmental chemicals throughout all stages of human development, among other factors, can cause such epigenetic changes that may turn on or turn off certain genes.

"Such modifications to the genetic blueprint may provide part of the answer to why some people are more susceptible to disease than others," Ren said. "Our hope is that understanding how and when epigenetic processes control genes throughout our lives will lead to more effective ways to prevent and treat disease."