CU Denver Genome and Epigenome Research Key in Next Generation of Medications, Earlier Diagnoses 

January 16, 2024

Behind every life-changing medication is a small army of researchers dedicated to not only understanding diseases like cancer and diabetes, but chronicling every molecule in the body that may be a factor in that illness. Those researchers—and their data—discover clues that can unlock medical mysteries.  

“That’s pretty much every researcher’s dream—to find that important thing that somebody could exploit later to benefit human health,” said Christopher J. Phiel, PhD, CU Denver associate professor of integrative biology. He said that almost 50 years ago, cell biology and genetics research led by Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School led to a fundamental understanding of how cholesterol levels are regulated in cells. Their discovery led to the recognition of how molecules now known as statins are able to reduce the levels of circulating cholesterol, thereby reducing heart disease. Today, more than 200 million people across the world use statin drugs to improve heart health.   

The crucial connection between data and medicine is the focus of research conducted by Phiel and Xiaojun Ren, PhD, associate professor of chemistry at CU Denver. They specialize in the study of embryonic stem cells and gene expression, respectively, and are the principal investigators for a CU Denver Research Grand Challenges initiative award. They are combining their efforts with 12 other CU Denver faculty members to gain a deeper understanding of the genome and epigenome, including the role of mutations in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. “We’re thinking in a big-picture sense of ‘how does this happen?’” Phiel said. “Why does that mutation have that effect?”   

For instance, Phiel described a Rube Goldberg-like experiment where a marble triggers dominoes falling over, which then leads to other downstream events. “Similarly, if we know what happens inside the cell, we might be able to find a place to pull out a domino and stop it,” Phiel said. “That’s the information that could eventually help pharmaceutical companies develop a drug.” 

Ren’s lab is one of only a handful in the world that can perform epigenetics studies at high resolution in living cells. Ren and his team are studying how epigenetic reprogramming can lessen the concentration of cancerous cells in children with brain tumors. “We want to open new avenues for diagnosis for drug development,” Ren said. “Our goal is to find a new understanding, a mechanism for something new that can be used in the future for diagnosis.” 

A main goal of Ren and Phiel’s Grand Challenge grant is to establish a collaborative genome and epigenome program at CU Denver called the Center for Applied Genome and Epigenome Science (AGES). They envision applying biomolecular data science to challenges in human health and further boosting internationally recognized epigenetics and computational data science studying groups. “We can share expertise, share our methods, and share our technology so we can tackle bigger questions,” Ren said.  

And such research and creative activities would not just be limited to the study of human cells. Their findings can be applied to molecules in plants and animals, too. “We’re all thinking about climate change these days,” Phiel said. “Well, we’re not climate scientists, but you could use the technology we’re studying and apply it to organisms. Are there trees less tolerant to growing at higher temperatures at high altitude? Could [other researchers] use our technology to visualize genetic and epigenetic changes and find out what prevented trees from growing?”