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$1.44 million NIH grant funds UGA study on link between epigenetics, cancer

Wenxuan Zhong

Athens, Ga. – A University of Georgia statistics researcher has been awarded a $1.44 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop statistical models that may one day be used to predict cancer and other diseases.

Wenxuan Zhong, an associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of statistics, will use the funds to develop predictive statistical models based on epigenetic change patterns.

Epigenetics—epi meaning ‘over’ or ‘other’ in Greek—is the study of changes in a gene’s behavior that can be passed down without actually altering the genetic code. Like an airport traffic controller, the epigenome passes along instructions that change the way the gene is expressed by switching genes on and off.

For instance, twins have the same genetic makeup, but they do not always experience the same illnesses, such as asthma or a mental illness. This is due to epigenetics, often a result of environmental factors.

Zhong hopes to shed light on the role of epigenetic changes in illnesses, particularly cancer.
One form of epigenetic change known as DNA methylation is particularly understudied in this area.

“There’s a large amount of evidence that a process known as DNA methylation is a key player in cancer development,” Zhong said. “Today’s next-generation sequencing techniques give us the data we need to close the gap in this area of research.”

Zhong and her team will develop a suite of statistical models to broaden the understanding of how epigenetic patterns are established and maintained during normal development and under different environmental conditions.

Large amounts of epigenetic and genomic data are routinely collected, processed and stored. Statisticians like Zhong look for ways to make the data tell the story.

“Statistics is very useful and can be used to solve real-world problems,” she said. “We take data and analyze it to create accurate statistical models so we can explain the data.”

The project is designed to bring about fundamental advances in DNA methylation analysis, help develop and refine technology for rapid identification of gene regulation related to DNA methylation sites and could help prototype an epigenetic chip for human intervention of certain diseases.

Zhong received her bachelor’s degree in statistics from Nankai University in 1996 and master’s and doctoral degrees in statistics in 2002 and 2005 from Purdue University. She was a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard University department of statistics and FAS Center for Systems Biology from 2005-2007. Before coming to UGA in 2013, Zhong was an associate professor in the department of statistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The research project, “Novel Statistical Tools for Cell-Line Specific Epigenetic Analysis of Gene Transcription,” is supported by the National Institutes of Health under award number R01GM113242.