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ICs Announce Epigenomics Grants

By Eddy Ball
November 2008

Wilson gave the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council an update on the planning stage of the Roadmap Epigenomics Program during its September 17-18, 2007 meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The initiative will focus on the potentially reversible and preventable changes in gene expression patterns triggered by environmental exposures. (Graphic courtesy of Sam Wilson)

The translational potential of the research is significant, with applications ranging from addiction and inflammation to birth defects, chronic diseases and cancers. (Graphic courtesy of Sam Wilson)

NIEHS is one of six institutes and centers (ICs) that announced the award of $18 million in 2008 grants on September 29 as part of the $190 million, five-year trans-NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program. The ambitious program will study epigenetic processes at a genome-wide scale to understand better how these processes control genes during different stages of development and affect gene expression. Because epigenetic alterations are potentially preventable and reversible, the research could have a major impact on the practice of medicine.

The twenty-two 2008 awards announced by NIH focus on four areas: epigenome mapping centers, epigenomics data analysis and coordination, technology development in epigenetics and the discovery of novel epigenetic marks in mammalian cells.

According to the NIH press release, the overall hypothesis of the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Program is that the origins of health and susceptibility to disease are, in part, the result of epigenetic regulation of the genetic blueprint. Researchers believe that understanding how and when epigenetic processes control genes during different stages of development and throughout life will lead to more effective ways to prevent and treat disease. Epigenetic processes, such as modifications to DNA-associated proteins called histones, control genetic activity by changing the three-dimensional structure of chromosomes.

The research will have a wide range of preventive and treatment applications, according to NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D. "The epigenetic regulation of gene expression is an emerging frontier in understanding human health and disease," he observed. "The information generated by this Roadmap program will be an invaluable resource for scientists studying normal biological processes, as well as a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, developmental disorders, and neurological diseases such as autism."

"Epigenomics-based research is now a central issue in biology. We will build upon our new knowledge of the human genome and move towards a deeper understanding of how DNA information is dynamically regulated through DNA histone modifications, as well as the emerging role of micro RNAs and other factors," explained NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "The grants now funded through this program will provide reference data that the entire community can use to understand epigenetic regulation and how it affects health and disease."

In addition to NIEHS, participating ICs are the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the National Library of Medicine. Their efforts are coordinated by the Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives (OPASI) as part of the NIH Roadmap.

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