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Laboratories in Collaboration

At Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), a collaborative culture is essential to research efforts. Focusing on various aspects of a single problem—cancer—scientists in the 24 HCI labs work in teams to advance knowledge of the disease and use their discoveries to develop new treatments for it. An effort currently underway provides just one example of this culture at work.

A team of HCI investigators studies how a process called DNA methylation works in the normal development of cells and how the process differs in cancer cells. Improper methy- lation of genes is associated with many kinds of cancer. Colon cancer is among them, and it’s the area of interest in the Jones Lab, headed by David Jones, PhD, associate professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah. Leukemia and bloodborne cancers are also asso- ciated with improper methylation, and the Trede Lab, headed by Nikolaus Trede, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah, studies them. Both researchers use zebrafish to study genes associated with these cancers. The Cairns Lab, headed by Brad Cairns, PhD, associate professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah, has developed methods to analyze DNA methy- lation patterns in zebrafish, using microarray techniques which can examine the methylation status of every gene in the genome.

“Two years ago, it would take an expert researcher two weeks to examine the DNA



Researchers in HCI laboratories headed by Brad Cairns, PhD; David Jones, PhD; and Nikolaus T collaborate on studies of DNA methylation in the zebrafish.

methylation status of a single gene. However, microarray has dramatically changed that pace,” says Cairns. “The microarray involves placing tens of thousands of genes in separate locations on a glass slide, allowing us to examine them individually using a laser. Using microarray technology, we can examine ten thousand genes in one month. This allows us to rapidly identify genes methylated during normal development or during cancer and to be very comprehensive in our searches.”

rede, MD, PhD,

Cells and entire organisms use methylation as part of the gene regulation mechanism during normal development. Typically, methylation acts like a switch that turns off a given gene until the appropriate time in development, when actions within the cell remove the methylation and allow the gene to function. This in turn allows the cell to develop properly. Previous studies looked at particular genes and found differing methylation patterns during various phases of embryonic development.

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