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Human Epigenome Project

January 15, 2006

The American Association of Cancer Researchers have published a blueprint for a comprehensive international Human Epigenome Project. According to the authors –

“The goal of the HEP (Human Epigenomic Project) is to identify all the chemical changes and relationships… that provide function to the DNA code, which will allow a fuller understanding of normal development, aging, abnormal gene control in cancer and other diseases, as well as the role of the environment in human health.”

The proposed structure involves a “low-resolution scan” of a large group of samples to get a general picture of the epigenome. And then focused, detailed mapping of a handful of high-interest ‘reference epigenomes’. The AARC wants the project to happen in conjunction with the existing European and Japanese efforts.

The researchers claim that the technology necessary for high-throughput mapping of the epigenome is within sight. The most promising approach involved –

“The so-called ChIP/chip methodology, in which intact chromatin – the complex of DNA and histones – is immunoprecipitated (brought out of solution using antibodies that recognize specific histone modifications) and analyzed on microarray “chips.” Modifications of DNA are also tracked on chips, following treatment with enzymes that recognize sites of methylation. Impressive accounts of success with these methods were presented at the workshop.”

I love this idea and hope that it gains momentum. The existing European effort hopes to have 10% of the human epigenome mapped by fall 2006. An international effort, with considerable American support, could move much much faster (to state the obvious). I agree with the statement in the report that, ultimately, the Human Epigenome Project could have a bigger impact than the Human Genome Project Especially in fields like psychiatry that have not benefitted from gene sequence based approaches.

I can see a few obstacles that might interfere with cooperation with the Europeans. As of now, Epigenomics AG, a German molecular diagnostics firm, stands to patent all of the MVPs identified by the Human Epigenome Project. During the Human Genome Project, the US Government was vehemently opposed to Celera’s patenting of genetic information. Assuming that the US government’s position hasn’t changed on this topic, it may be difficult to get public funding for a project involving the Europeans.

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