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2016 Spring/Summer Highlights of Hope

  • Text
  • Hope
  • Institute
  • Epigenetics
  • Neurodegenerative
  • Epigenetic

2016 Spring/Summer Highlights of

Spring 2016 van andel institute’s Highlights of HOPE Exploring the Epigenetic Landscape of Parkinson’s Disease Neuroepigenetics offers unique insight into Parkinson’s disease risk and future therapies. An emerging area of research, known as neuroepigenetics, could provide a new avenue for the development of novel diagnostics and therapies for Parkinson’s—a disease that affects seven to 10 million people globally. If the genetic code is a musical score, then epigenetics represent the various ways in which it may or may not be played. Although the actual notes on the sheet music do not change, the choice of key, instrument, volume and even the omission of parts of the piece alters what the listener hears. In much the same way, epigenetic modifications do not change the DNA sequence—which is virtually identical in all cells in a person’s body— rather, they regulate how the DNA is expressed. Epigenetics control how the DNA is used, switching particular genes “on” or “off” to determine cell type and function. Disruptions in these epigenetic controls also may play significant roles in the development of Parkinson’s and many other diseases. “We know a fair amount about the role of epigenetic mechanisms in cancer, specifically how genes are switched ‘on’ and ‘off’ inappropriately, but we know far less about how these processes Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. occur and function in the brain,” said Peter Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc., VARI’s research director and a world renowned epigenetics expert. “There is great potential for epigenetics to revolutionize our understanding of how neurodegenerative diseases occur and progress.” New appointments, new insights Gerhard (Gerry) Coetzee, Ph.D., and Viviane Labrie, Ph.D., recently joined the Institute to explore the genetic and epigenetic underpinnings of Parkinson’s. Both scientists will utilize cutting-edge techniques to better identify and understand risk factors and causes of neurodegeneration, paving the way for new therapies that slow or stop disease progression. Coetzee, an expert with more than 30 years of experience in molecular biology and large scale genomic studies who joined the Institute from University of Southern California, is well known in the cancer field and has made several discoveries in both breast and prostate cancers. Currently, he applies his expertise in genetic and epigenetic cancer research to pinpointing specific risk factors for Parkinson’s. “Joining VARI is an incredible opportunity to apply the techniques we’ve used to further our understanding of Gerhard Coetzee, Ph.D. cancer risk factors to Parkinson’s,” Coetzee said. “I have a long career in cancer research and in order to apply my work in genetics to Parkinson’s I require strong, active collaborators. I have found that in my colleagues in the Center for Neurodegenerative Science.” Less than 10 percent of Parkinson’s cases have a known genetic link. The remaining majority of cases occur have no known cause, although scientists theorize a combination of genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors may be involved. Continued on page 2