September 28, 2009

Johns Hopkins epigenetic center receives $16.8 million NIH grant

Johns Hopkins’ Center for the Epigenetics of Common Human Disease has been chosen as one of four recipients of a $45 million National Institutes of Health grant for Centers of Excellence to advance genomics research. The Johns Hopkins center will receive $16.8 million over five years.

“We’re grateful for such generous support to continue our work in understanding how epigenetic control affects disease,” said the center’s director, Andrew Feinberg.

Over the past five years, Feinberg, a professor of molecular medicine at the School of Medicine, has led a team of researchers at the center to study the epigenetic basis of common health problems, including cancer, autism and psychiatric illnesses. Epigenetics—or “above the genome”—refers to changes in genes other than the DNA sequence itself. The changes affect which genes are turned on or off and therefore which proteins are produced in cells. Feinberg says that because epigenetic variation may be at least as great between individuals as variations in the DNA sequences themselves, understanding the epigenome may help explain how errors occur in normal development and how environmental factors lead to cancer, autism and other disorders.

The center has already developed novel statistical and analytical tools to identify epigenetic modifications across the human genome.  With the new funds, awarded by two NIH agencies—the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health—Feinberg and his colleagues plan to refine these tools so that they can be used efficiently and cost-effectively in large studies. The team will focus its efforts on studying the epigenetics of bipolar disorder, aging and autism. The scientists will also explore how other factors, such as a person’s genetic makeup, lifestyle choices and environmental exposures, interact with epigenetic factors to cause disease.

The Johns Hopkins Center for the Epigenetics of Common Human Disease has been recognized since 2004 as one of NHGRI’s Centers for Excellence in Genomic Science.