The Keystone Program in Epigenetics and Progenitor Cells.
As recently as a decade ago, researchers believed that most types of cancer were primarily caused by genetic mutations—changes in the sequence of amino acids that make up our DNA. Mutations can affect normal cell activity in ways that trigger or allow the uncontrolled proliferation of cells which we call cancer.
Today, researchers know that genes and mutations are only part of the story, because genes can't affect cell activity until the genes are "turned on" or expressed. In a new field of science called epigenetics, scientists are just beginning to understand the complex non-genetic factors that regulate gene expression.
The master genetic code recorded in our DNA is packaged into tight bundles and stored inside the cell's nucleus. To be expressed, these bundles must relax and open, allowing the genetic instructions inside to be copied and transferred from the nucleus to other parts of the cell. When a specific biochemical tag is attached to DNA, it relaxes and genes can be expressed. But if a different tag is attached, the DNA remains tightly spooled and those genes stay silent.
Scientists in the Keystone Program in Epigenetics and Progenitor Cells are working together to understand how these epigenetic tags affect gene activity in cells—especially in a small subset of primitive, undeveloped cancer cells called progenitor or stem cells. Many scientists believe the growth of a malignant tumor is driven by these cancer stem cells.
Keystone Program scientists want to understand how epigenetic signals affect gene expression in cancer progenitor cells causing them to multiply uncontrollably and become resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs that kill regular cancer cells. By focusing on basic questions at the interface between epigenetics and progenitor cells, Keystone Program scientists hope to achieve their goal—the discovery of new tools to diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer.