University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

NIH grants $10.5 million to UND for epigenetics research center

The School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) has received a $10.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE [pronounced KOH-bree]). The IDeA program builds research capacities in states that historically have had low levels of NIH funding by supporting basic, clinical and translational research; faculty development; and infrastructure improvements.

The new COBRE at UND will research the epigenetics of development and disease. Epigenetics is the study of the epigenome, the biochemical elements in the cellular neighborhood around your DNA, which may direct the expression of your genetic code for good or for ill. Epigenetic changes to your DNA can be passed on from cell to cell as cells divide and eventually to your offspring and their children.

"Institutional Development Award Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence are thematic, multidisciplinary programs that develop faculty and institutional research capabilities in states—like North Dakota—that historically have had low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health," said W. Fred Taylor, who directs the IDeA program at the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "This COBRE is focusing on the role of epigenetic changes in human disease development and progression, a cutting-edge field of scientific inquiry that could lead to new approaches to treatment and prevention."

"This is the second COBRE awarded to UND and the SMHS, and we are just thrilled," said Joshua Wynne, vice president for health affairs and dean of the SMHS. "The initial COBRE is now in its third cycle, and has more than fulfilled all expectations. We expect similar great results from this epigenetics COBRE."

Roxanne A. Vaughan, principal investigator of the COBRE and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the SMHS, said, "This grant will significantly expand epigenetic research at UND by instituting a variety of programs that will support young investigators at early stages in their careers, establish core facilities and purchase major equipment, and assist with faculty mentoring and development. Together these programs will enhance research across multiple disciplines and elevate the research capacity of the university."

As an established biomedical research scientist, Vaughan was crucial in meeting the NIH's expectation that the principal investigator for the new COBRE must be able to ensure high quality research and has the experience to administer effectively and integrate all components of the program.

Vaughan will help support the projects of the new center's team members, who are early career investigators or those with established research programs in other fields whose research has led them to the exciting area of epigenetics and epigenomics research:

  • Lucia Carvelli, assistant professor of pharmacology, physiology, and therapeutics.
  • Archana Dhasarathy, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
  • Sergei Nechaev, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology.
  • Joyce Ohm, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

The new center solidifies the efforts of the epigenetics research working group at UND, which has been meeting regularly since 2010 and has grown to include approximately twenty laboratories from three departments in the SMHS, as well as talented scientists from the College of Nursing, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center.

"Abnormal epigenetic regulation has been implicated in a variety of human diseases," said Joyce Ohm. "Those diseases include cancer, obesity, diabetes, infertility, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. Researchers at UND are actively working to understand the bases for these diseases and to develop new strategies for treatments or preventions."

Your DNA was once thought to hold your destiny chiseled in stone, the sole determinant of who you are or will be. However, scientists have recently found that your DNA is text that is editable by your epigenome, and this fluidity plays a pivotal role in whether you develop a disease based on the effect of environmental factors such as exposure to toxins and if you might pass this susceptibility to future generations. So the epigenome may alter the way genes are expressed, which can make even identical twins different.

Because analysis of the data for the human epigenome dwarfs the effort that took place to map the human genome, the UND scientists will rely on an expert in bioinformatics to help them sift through the mountain of information. Bioinformatics is the interdisciplinary field that uses the power of computers and statistics to analyze the wealth of information generated by biomedical researchers.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation's medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. The mission of the NIH is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

For more information on the epigenome and epigenetics, please visit the National Human Genome Research Institute's fact sheet at http://www.genome.gov/27532724.

-- Denis MacLeod, assistant director, Office of Alumni and Community Relations, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, 777.2733, denis.macleod@med.UND.edu.


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