Global epigenetics project granted millions in funding

Last week, scientists came one step closer to understanding the human body on a new level—down to each type of body tissue and its specific stages of phenotypic development. Through Genome Canada and the Government of Quebec, the Government of Canada finalized an agreement to supply $41 million towards epigenetic research—the study of changes in cellular and genetic phenotypes that are not caused by a direct change in the sequence of DNA nucleotides.

This funding will strengthen Canada’s leading role in epigenetic sequencing research. It has also sparked new ideas for projects amongst researchers at McGill—one of the two main centres in Canada for epigenetics, alongside the University of British Columbia.

Countries across the globe are involved in the huge task of mapping the epigenome of normal human tissues, or creating models of the changes of the normally functioning human tissue. They use these maps and models in epigenetic development as a reference for comparison with diseased or malfunctioning tissues.

“The goal of the global project is to map thousands of these epigenomes,” Tomi Pastinen, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in human genetics, said. “The role of Canada is to take care of about 200 of those epigenomes.”

The largest portion of the new funding will be allocated towards creating models of cell change, also known as reference epigenomes. With these, the potential for further research and discovery of diseases and malfunctions of various tissues should skyrocket.

“Let’s say we have generated at McGill reference epigenomes for a [healthy] human,” Pastinen said. “[If] there is a group who is interested in studying a common autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, they can extract t-cells from patients with rheumatoid arthritis and carry out epigenome analysis on those t-cells and then compare the results to the reference epigenome. If they see a difference there… it gives you clues about the disease.”

Epigenome mapping will reveal information about diseases as well as provide a deluge of information on normal cell development. The research will not only further epigenetic discovery, but also provide insight into all fields of biology. All information on the reference epigenomes will be made public. In an effort to integrate the investigations on epigenome maps with a pervasive understanding of normal cells and tissues, all of the maps will be fully accessible to hospitals, labs, and other researchers around the world who need them.

The rest of the funding will further direct research in the field. McGill professors Tomi Pastinen, Mark Lathrop—also Scientific Director at the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre—and Michael Meaney, James McGill Professor and Associate Director of the Douglas Institute Research Centre, have already begun to delve into promising epigenetic research.

In early research, the group of McGill professors discovered that events early in life can alter the way rats behave in later years. The phenomenon suggests that stressful early experiences can alter the rat’s epigenome and tissue development, and progressively lead to anxiety and depression.

The team hopes to delve into building human models, possibly pinpointing  specific stages of development of these disorders occurring later in rats’ lives. Using the reference epigenomes of the human brain tissue, the researchers will be able to compare the stages of change in brain development between normal and depressed subjects. They could possibly find a way to prevent these detrimental changes from happening.

“This [research] is one of the great promises we have,” Pastinen said. “[But the projects] will only be launched early next year, because the funding has not yet been decided and is currently being reviewed by Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).”

The new funding initializes an important step in biology research, marking the beginning of a new stage in epigenetic study.

“If the human genome sequencing took 15 years to realize, understanding how the sequence works will take 50 years to realize, so there will be lots of work to do,” Pastinen said. “We can use sequencing technologies [to acquire an epigenetic map], but understanding what it means in going to be the challenge for years to come.”

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