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Tracking environmental causes of good and bad health

A Simon Fraser University scientist working at one of Canada's first epigenomics mapping centres says new federal funding will accelerate researchers' ability to unravel how we develop some of the most common life threatening cancers.

Through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), a granting agency that funds research, the federal government in partnership with Genome BC and Gnome Qubec is injecting $12 million into epigenetic research.

Distributed over five years, the funding will ramp up the operation of two newly established epigenomic mapping centres the first in Canada.

One centre is in Vancouver. It involves molecular biologists and biochemists Steven Jones, Martin Hirst, Marco Marra and Richard Moore at SFU, and researchers at Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre (MSGSC) and the University of British Columbia. The other centre in Montreal involves researchers at McGill University and the Gnome Qubec Innovation Centre.

The centres' scientists are piecing together how constantly evolving chemical modifications in our DNA and proteins, known collectively as our epigenome, cause our genome to stay healthy or develop diseases. Initially, the researchers are investigating changes to tissues and cells that lead to Leukemia and cancers of the colon and ovaries. They are among the most common human malignancies.

"In contrast to our genome, which remains mostly the same throughout an individual's life," explains Hirst, "the epigenome changes during development and aging in response to external stimuli and emerging diseases."

The stimuli could be a variety of environmental factors, including exposure to chemical contaminants, dietary intake and social background such as poverty or a stimulating, nurturing setting.

"Epigenome changes over our life time can profoundly affect which genes are turned on and consequently how our cells behave," adds Hirst.

The SFU adjunct professor of molecular biology and biochemistry is also the head of epigenomics at the MSGSC. "Understanding which epigenome states exist in different cell types and how these states interact is critically important to discovering how human health and disease evolve."

As part of a broader international effort to generate 1,000 reference epigenomes, the mapping centres are generating 100 of them from primary human tissues and cells.

The new federal funding enables them to use high-through-put sequencing, such as the Illumina Hiseq platform, to do the DNA and protein analysis.


Contact: Carol Thorbes
Simon Fraser University

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