A collaborative team of international researchers led by Dr. Thai H. Ho, MD., PhD, associate professor of medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic has made an important discovery that may significantly improve the treatment efficacy of therapies used to stop the progression of late-stage cancers, including lymphoma. Their study, entitled, “High-resolution profiling of histone h3 lysine 36 trimethylation in metastatic renal cell carcinoma,” which was published in the latest edition of Nature’s Oncogene, discovered a new genetic biomarker which could help healthcare providers identify more aggressive cancers or find the best drug for the individual patient in an effort to personalize medical care.
- Epigenomics: the study of external or environmental factors that turn genes on and off and affect how cells read genes.
- Biomarker: short for biological markers, are the measures used to perform a clinical assessment- examples include blood pressure or cholesterol level, that are used to monitor and predict patient’s health status
- Cell lines: a population of cells derived from a single cell and containing the same genetic makeup that is used in many scientific experiments.
- Precision medicine: an innovative approach to disease prevention and treatment that takes into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments, and lifestyles.
Using a precision medicine approach Dr. Ho and his team utilized renal cell carcinoma (RCC) cell lines taken from nephrectomies (surgical procedure to remove all or part of a kidney) of renal cancer patients. The cellular analysis identified an epigenomic fingerprint that is a biomarker for disease advancement to metastasis.
In a University press release about the importance of the study, Dr. Ho, who enjoys using a good metaphor to explain the science behind his research, said “If you think of late-stage cancer as a runaway car, most of our drugs take a shot at a tire here and there, but sometimes they miss and often they can’t stop it entirely. We believe we have identified a mechanism that seizes the cancer’s biological engine and could potentially stop it in its tracks.”
This is the first study of its kind that uses epigenomic fingerprinting to study tumorgenesis and the researchers are planning to use its methods to assess other diseases, such as blood cancers.
In another creative attempt to explain the scientific intricacies of his team’s research Dr. Ho uses the behavior of honeybees as an example of how epigenomics affects cellular function and an organism’s fate, he stated, “Throughout their life spans, all bees in a hive share the same DNA sequence. But some bees become drones, others sterile female workers, and still others the queen. Much of this differentiation can be attributed to epigenomics.”
Dr. Ho, continues, “In feeding a larval honeybee with copious amounts of a richly nutritious secretion called royal jelly, the larva will eventually develop into a queen. Chemicals present in the royal jelly, but absent in nectar and pollen, are thought to activate entirely different parts of the same bee genome — converting one larva into the queen while others, such as workers and drones, are much smaller and have shorter life spans. Similarly, cancers often subvert a cell’s normal epigenomic mechanisms to become more aggressive.”