Campus News

$1.44M grant to fund study on link between epigenetics, cancer

Wenxuan Zhong

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

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

Epigenetics 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 routinely are collected, processed and stored. Statisticians like Zhong look for ways to make the data tell the story.

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