Genes of our fathers, diseases of our children

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Genes of our fathers, diseases of our children

Epigenetics — the hard science behind the mystery of whom each of us becomes — is gaining lots of international attention.

In fact, so much that the federal government is putting a lot of cash behind programs that dig into the elusive mystery of this relatively new field.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded the University of North Dakota $10.5 million in a five-year grant to support an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).

The question of the epigenetic role in diseases is uppermost on the horizon for this new UND COBRE team.

"Abnormal epigenetic regulation has been implicated in a variety of human diseases," said Joyce Ohm, a core member of the new center that investigates, among other things, the abnormal epigenetic silencing events in the initiation of human cancers. "Those diseases include cancer, obesity, diabetes, infertility and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease."

UND researchers are working to understand the bases for these diseases and how epigenetics may play a role in the onset of diseases in future generations, and to develop new strategies for treatments or preventions.

Ohm, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and her epigenetics research colleagues note, an individual's overeating or cigarette smoking or cancer today might be a result of what his or her grandparents did and might have an effect on his or her children and grandchildren.

Learning more about how that all happens is the key to UND's new COBRE.

Epigenetics relates to the biochemical machinery at the cellular level that switches specific genes on — or doesn't — affecting what each of us does: for example, what we choose to eat, how we sleep, how we get sick, whether we get cancers or Alzheimer's, and how we express a whole range of other behaviors.

"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," said Roxanne A. Vaughan, principal investigator of the COBRE and a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences. "Together these programs will enhance research across multiple disciplines and elevate the research capacity of the University."

As an established biomedical researcher, Vaughan's participation in the grant proposal was crucial. The NIH expects that the principal investigator for a new COBRE must be able to ensure high-quality research and have the experience to administer effectively and integrate all components of the program.

Vaughan will help support the projects of the new center's core team members, including Ohm, Lucia Carvelli, assistant professor of pharmacology, physiology and therapeutics; Archana Dhasarathy, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; and Sergei Nechaev, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology. The team comprises researchers 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.

The new center expands UND's ongoing epigenetics research program, which includes a group of interested scientists from several different departments and colleges, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. The group has been meeting regularly on campus since 2010.

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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