Health Care

VAI establishes epigenetics research hub

Institute strives to become global center for cancer research.

February 28, 2014
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VAI Jones
Dr. Peter Jones explains VAI's plan for global epigenetics research. Photo by Rachel Weick

Beer City USA may soon become the “Epigenetics Capital of the World” following Van Andel Institute’s announcement of a new research hub.

VAI unveiled a plan last week to establish a global epigenetics research hub with Dr. Peter Jones, director of research and chief scientific officer at the institute, as the leader of the venture.

“I’m just really excited to be in a situation where I can work with all of the great people who are already here and to recruit a lot of great people who are not here,” said Jones. “And I want the world to know that when you say ‘epigenetics,’  you say Van Andel Institute.”

Epigenetics refers to external modifications to DNA that can turn genes “on” or “off,” according to information supplied by VAI. It is also considered a significant new area of cancer research and is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not a result of DNA sequencing alterations.

David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of the institute, said epigenetics and the importance placed upon it will be added to the other work done at the research facility.

“There is a lot of great science going on that has to continue,” said Van Andel. “And this is something that will interweave throughout all that science, whether it be (research) in Parkinson’s or cancer, or the other diseases that we work on. Epigenetics will play a role there, but it will be additive to all of those.”

“What we are really interested in this field is to try and understand how your genes are packaged in the cells,” said Jones. “That’s the essence of it — it’s called semantic inheritance. How does a liver cell divide and know it was a liver cell before it divided? That’s what we are interested in.”

According to “Bringing Epigenetic Therapy to the Forefront of Cancer Management” on the Stand Up To Cancer website, inappropriate epigenetic activity plays a significant role in cancer development and those changes can be reversed.

“Instead of the genes working in the right way, some of them get switched off. Others get switched on,” said Jones. “And this can cause havoc. It can give rise to cancer. It can give rise to late-onset diseases.”

Jones has more than 40 years of experience in academia in bio-molecular research and recently has focused on how epigenetics might benefit those living with cancer. While at the University of Southern California, he was co-leader of Stand Up To Cancer’s Epigenetics Dream Team.

Stand Up To Cancer was founded by a group of women as a groundbreaking initiative to accelerate innovative cancer research while focusing on patients. The organization seeks to bring together the best researchers and encourages collaboration instead of competition, according to its website.

The Epigenetics Dream Team was given more than $10 million in funding to conduct clinical trials of epigenetic therapy on lung, breast, and colon cancers, as well as leukemia.

According to the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, “rather than attacking and destroying replicating cells as standard chemotherapy drugs do, this therapy actually aims to reprogram cells to behave more like normal cells.”

As a leader of the research hub at VAI, Jones has an aggressive two-part strategy to develop it as the epigenetic center of the world. The first step is to recruit scientists who have international reputations to “build up the basic science and contribute to an already solid foundation,” he said.

He said the second part is to develop a consortium of five academic institutions that “will continue the tradition of our Stand Up To Cancer team so the Van Andel Institute will be the center of translational research.” Four of the five academic institutions will be located in the United State and the fifth will be international.

“The idea that we came up with was we wouldn’t compete against each other — which, very much of the time, we do in science — but compete against cancer as a team,” Jones said.

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