University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

Vermont Cancer Center Researchers Target Epigenetic Mechanisms to Advance Cancer Detection and Treatment

GARY STEIN, PH.D., CLAIRE VERSCHRAEGEN, M.D., MARIE WOOD, M.D., KALEEM ZAIDI, PH.D.

Researchers at the Vermont Cancer Center (VCC) at the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care are transforming the understanding of cancer biology and treatment of cancer. Investigations focus on molecular mechanisms of tumor/cell malignancy, host factors and tumor growth, cancer control and population health science, as well as transdisciplinary team approaches to cancer research. A common thread of inquiry and discovery is epigenetics in cancer — looking at heritable, but reversible, changes in gene function that do not involve changes in DNA sequence, in order to better understand how cancer develops and how this process can be modified to achieve better treatment outcomes.

VCC Co-Directors Gary Stein, Ph.D., and Claire Verschraegen, M.D., gathered scientists, physician-investigators, and students from across the University and around the country to share knowledge and develop ideas around the topic of epigenetics in cancer at the annual VCC Clinical and Translational Research Symposium. The fundamental understanding of the role genes play in cancer is evolving, and VCC researchers are leading the way in an international initiative to uncover key epigenetic mechanisms involved in development of cancer, yielding new insight about how cancers develop, and novel approaches to cancer treatment and control.

Hematologist-oncologist Marie Wood, M.D., is leading ground-breaking epigenetic research focused on early detection of breast and prostate cancer. Wood's most recent publication, looking at noncoding RNAs, is featured on the May 2014 cover of the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. Partnering with VCC colleagues Stein, Jane Lian, Ph.D., Janet Stein, Ph.D., Nicholas Farina, Ph.D., Chris Francklyn, Ph.D., Scott Perrapato, D.O., Mark Plante, M.D., and Steven Ades, M.D., she is evaluating noncoding RNAs as biomarkers for risk assessment and early detection of cancer as well as risk for recurrence of cancer. This work represents the next generation of early screening capabilities, paving the way for a simple blood test that may reveal early biomarkers for cancer risk.

The work of cancer cell biologist Kaleem Zaidi, Ph.D., focuses on understanding epigenetic mechanisms that are compromised in human leukemia. He is principal investigator for a National Cancer Institute-funded grant to study the role of microRNAs in human leukemia. Partnering with collaborators at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, including Karen Glass, Ph.D., UVM adjunct assistant professor of biochemistry, Zaidi's current research has far-reaching implications for devising safe and targeted therapeutic strategies for treating human leukemia.

A major initiative in the Stein Lab — supported by a $2.1 million Pfizer Pharmaceuticals grant — is focusing on establishing epigenetic signatures for risk assessment of drug-related induction of cancer and tumor progression. Led by Lian, Janet Stein, and Gary Stein, the research is harnessing state-of-the-art analysis at the VCC Advanced Genome Technologies Core to investigate cancer treatment-related alterations in epigenetic control. Using these highly sensitive analyses, the Stein Lab aims to develop epigenetic signatures that will help evaluate the specificity and activity for the next generation of treatments for tumors that do not respond well to conventional approaches.

This body of epigenetic research is leading to new collaborations, clinical trials and key information critical to advancing new therapeutics, public health approaches to cancer prevention, and enhancing quality of life after cancer — all contributing to the VCC's mission of advancing cancer prevention, detection, treatment and survivorship in Vermont and beyond.

Last modified May 15 2014 02:26 PM