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NIH Funds Grantees Focusing on Epigenomics of Human Health and Disease

By Robin Mackar
October 2009

Figure 1 - Epigenetic Mechanisms in Human Health and Disease diagram

Figure 2 - Translation to clinical practice diagram

The NIH announced on September 16 that it will fund 22 grants on genome-wide studies of how epigenetic changes - chemical modifications to genes that result from diet, aging, stress, or environmental exposures - define and contribute to specific human diseases and biological processes.

The awards will build on the important work undertaken as part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research's Epigenomics Program. Approximately $62 million will be awarded over the next five years to study the epigenome in a number of diseases and conditions, including tumor development, hardening of the arteries, autism, glaucoma, asthma, aging, and abnormal growth and development.

"Epigenomics represents the next phase in our understanding of genetic regulation of health and disease," said NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "These awards will address the extent to which diet and environmental exposures produce long lasting effects through changes in DNA regulation." The initiative was launched through the NIH Director's Office and, as part of the Roadmap, is expected to profoundly alter the way we understand, diagnose, and treat disease.

"This is the largest effort to date to apply epigenetics on a genome-wide scale to specific diseases," said James F. Battey, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of the lead NIH institutes for this Roadmap program.

The Roadmap Epigenomics Program was designed to characterize epigenetic modifications and to correlate the presence or absence of specific modifications with disease status. DNA methylation is a fundamental epigenetic modification that regulates gene expression and chromosome stability. This and other epigenetic modifications (http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/epigenomics/epigeneticmechanisms.asp) Exit NIEHS control gene activity by changing the three-dimensional structure of chromosomes.

"The new grantees being announced will join a larger collaborative research effort that is working together to understand epigenetics and how it affects human health and disease," said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

This health and disease-focused component of the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program builds on the previous four interrelated initiatives, but is the first to tackle questions related to diseases. The other four initiatives include the establishment of four epigenome mapping centers, the funding of an epigenomics data analysis and coordination center. the development of innovative technology in epigenetics, and the discovery of novel epigenetic changes.

"These studies will help increase our understanding of how factors such as environmental exposures, alcohol, drug abuse and stress can modify the effect of epigenetics on diseases," said Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The awards are funded by 11 NIH institutes and the NIH Office of the Director. The Epigenomics Program is part of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Roadmap for Medical Research (http://www.nihroadmap.nih.gov/) Exit NIEHS funded through the NIH Common Fund and is managed by the NIEHS, the NIAD, the NIDCD, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Office of Strategic Coordination. The Roadmap is a series of initiatives designed to pursue major opportunities and gaps in biomedical research that no single NIH institute could tackle alone, but which the agency as a whole can address to make the biggest impact possible on the progress of medical research.

Note: A complete list of grantees and participating NIH institutes and centers is available online in the full NIEHS press release (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/releases/2009/nih-funds-grantees.cfm).

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)



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