Epigenetics discovery could lead to new class of cancer drugs

Research in genetics laboratory

A new paper has solved the 20-year mystery of how epigenetic modifications act as traffic lights to control gene expression and could ultimately speed up the development of a new class of epigenetic cancer drugs. 

Epigenetics is still largely unexplored and referred to as the ‘dark matter’ of the genome. But the new findings answer a fundamental and longstanding question – how epigenetic proteins regulate the processes of transcription and gene expression, through which our genes are read and translated into proteins. 

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London have revealed how a key epigenetic signal called H3K4me3 determines when and how DNA should be read and translated into proteins within our cells. 

The study shows that H3K4me3 ensures genes are transcribed and activated at the right time in a controlled manner, like a set of traffic lights regulating the flow of cars on a busy road. Understanding how it functions in normal cells can also shed new light on the development of cancer – and the role played by a breakdown in the regulation of gene activity. 

New understanding of epigenetics

It has been known for more than 20 years that the enzymes placing H3K4me3, a chemical tag added to DNA, are crucial for normal cell development, as well as being linked to leukaemia, breast, bowel and pancreatic cancers. But, until now, scientists lacked an understanding of what the chemical tag does, despite many years of research. 

The long-term hope is that this new understanding could lead to a new class of cancer treatments that target epigenetic ‘traffic lights’ to block the activity of genes that may be fuelling cancer. 

Study leader Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and a world leader in the study of epigenetics, said: “Our study offers a fundamental new understanding of epigenetics, a very exciting and still largely underexplored area of cancer research. It is only thanks to basic understanding of how our genes and cells work, and what can go wrong with them, that we can create the cancer treatments of the future. 

“Drugs targeting these ‘traffic lights’, or epigenetic modifications, such as H3K4me3, are already being developed – and it is possible that they could one day become an effective way of treating cancer patients. This is an exciting new avenue for cancer research, and we believe our findings will pave the way for more effective development of these epigenetic drugs.” 

Like a traffic light

Using mouse stem cells and genetic and biochemical experiments in the lab, researchers found that the H3K4me3 modification is essential for regulating how and when our genes are expressed. 

The team found that H3K4me3 acts like a traffic light at a busy intersection. By regulating the flow of RNA polymerase II – a protein complex that reads and decodes DNA – H3K4me3 determines when gene expression should start and the speed at which it runs. 

When it gives the green light, H3K4me3 allows RNA polymerase II to move along DNA, transcribing it into RNA as it moves. But without H3K4me3, RNA polymerase II gets stuck at specific points on the DNA, creating a hold-up and slowing down transcription.  

Previous results have suggested that disrupting or changing H3K4me3 levels in cells is important for cancer development and affects response to treatment.

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