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Yufeng Shen Episcore

The epigenomic profile of RBFOX2, a haploinsufficient gene recently identified as a risk gene of congenital heart disease. Each small box represents 100 bp region around transcription start sites (TSSs) and the shade of the color reflect the strength of the histone mark signal in tissues under normal conditions. RBFOX2 has large expansion of active histone marks (H3K4me3 and H3K9ac), especially in heart and epithelial tissues (purple and gray rows), and tissue-specific suppression mark (H3K27me3) in blood samples.(Credit: Shen lab)

The genetics of developmental disorders, such as congenital heart disease and autism, are highly complex. There are roughly 500 to 1,000 risk genes that can lead to each of these diseases, and to date, only about a few dozen have been identified. Scientists have ramped up efforts to develop computational approaches to address challenges in accurately identifying genetic risk factors in ongoing genetic studies, and the availability of such tools would greatly assist researchers in gaining a deeper understanding of the root causes of these diseases. 

Focusing on haploinsufficiency, a key biological mechanism of genetic risk in developmental disorders, Yufeng Shen , PhD, and his lab have developed a novel computational method that enables researchers to find new risk genes in these diseases. Their key idea is that the expression of haploinsufficient genes must be precisely regulated during normal development, and such regulation can be manifested in distinct patterns of genomic regulatory elements. Using data from the NIH Roadmap Epigenomics Project, they showed there is a strong correlation of certain histone marks and known haploinsufficient genes. Then based on supervised machine learning algorithms, they developed a new method, which they call Episcore , to predict haploinsufficiency from epigenomic data representing a broad range of tissue and cell types. Finally, they demonstrate the utility of Episcore in identification of novel risk variants in studies of congenital heart disease and intellectual disability.  

A research team from Columbia University Irving Medical Center has received a 2018 PCF Challenge Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) to advance prostate cancer research. The interdisciplinary team at Columbia includes leading experts in systems biology, cancer research and medicine from Columbia’s Department of Systems Biology and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC)

Announced today, PCF is awarding more than $5.5 million in funding to a total of six teams to conduct research with the highest potential for accelerating new and improved treatments for advanced prostate cancer. PCF is one of the largest non-governmental organizations dedicated solely to funding prostate cancer research, and its annual Challenge Awards are highly coveted in the scientific and medical fields. 

In the United States, prostate cancer is the most common non-skin cancer, and 1 out of every 9 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the disease in his lifetime. To date, treatment of the most aggressive forms of prostate cancer represents a clinical challenge. After treatment failure with anti-androgen drugs, which are part of the standard of care for advanced metastatic prostate cancer, only few current therapeutic options remain and the impact on patient survival is limited. Indeed, the field needs major innovative, out-of-the-box approaches to new therapies to combat advanced prostate cancer. 

 

DSB Retreat
Members of the Dennis Vitkup Lab, from l to r: Konstatine Tchourine, German Plata and Jon Chang (Credit: Sandra Squarcia); Photo Gallery of the retreat.

Innovative research projects were highlighted at the Department of Systems Biology’s annual retreat, held October 5, at Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center in Riverdale, NY. The retreat, attended by 160 faculty, staff, post-doctoral scientists, students and guests, also provided an opportunity for young investigators to showcase their work during a poster competition. 

Andrea Califano , Dr., chair of the department, opened the day’s sessions with welcome remarks, as the retreat also served as a site visit by the National Cancer Institute for the Columbia University Center for Cancer Systems Therapeutics (CaST) . CaST, co-directors Drs. Califano and Barry Honig , vice-chair of the department, was established in 2016 as one of the key centers in the NCI’s Cancer Systems Biology Consortium (CSBC). The initiative behind CSBC is heavily grounded on innovation—bringing together interdisciplinary teams of clinical and basic cancer researchers with physical scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists who collaborate to tackle major questions in cancer biology from a novel out-of-the-box point of view. 

 

Andrea Califano
Andrea Califano, Dr.

Andrea Califano , Dr., a pioneer in the field of systems biology and founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) . Membership in the NAM is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievements and commitment to service.  

A physicist by training, Dr. Califano has taken innovative, systematic approaches to identify the molecular factors that lead to cancer progression and to the emergence of drug resistance at the single-cell level. Directing the conversation about cancer research away from focusing solely on gene mutations, Dr. Califano examines the complex and tumor-specific molecular interaction networks that determine cancer cell behavior. Using information theoretic approaches, analysis of these networks can precisely pinpoint master regulator proteins that are mechanistically responsible for supporting tumorigenesis and for implementing tumor cell homeostasis. Dr. Califano and his lab have shown that master regulators represent critical drivers and tumor dependencies, despite the fact that they are rarely mutated or differentially expressed, thus establishing them as a bona fide new class of therapeutic targets.

October 10, 2018

Q+A with Dr. Laura Landweber

Oxytricha

Oxytricha. (Credit: Bob Hammersmith)

Laura Landweber, PhD, loves a challenge. So it’s no surprise that she has built a scientific career unraveling the hows and whys of a unique single-cell organism known for its biological complexity.  

An evolutionary biologist whose work sits at the interface of genetics and molecular biology, Dr. Landweber, for nearly 20 years, has focused much of her research on Oxytricha trifallax , a microbial organism that is prevalent in ponds, feeds on algae and has a highly complex genome architecture, making it an attractive, albeit challenging, model organism to study. Compared to humans, with 46 chromosomes containing some 25,000 genes, Oxytricha is known to comprise many thousands of chromosomes, in the ballpark of 16,000 tiny “nanochromosomes”. Yet not only is it complex in sheer numbers of chromosomes but the information carried in those individual chromosomes can be scrambled, like information compression, and the process of development in Oxytricha must descramble this information so that it can be converted into RNA and proteins.

“DNA can be flipped and inverted in Oxytricha and the cellular machinery actually knows how to restore order,” says Dr. Landweber. “Hence, it’s this wonderful paragon for understanding genome integrity and the maintenance and establishment of genome integrity.” 

Even more perplexing, in cell division, Oxytricha reproduces asexually when it wants to produce more in number, and it reproduces sexually when it needs to rebuild its genome. It also has the ability to “clean up” its genome, so to speak, eliminating nearly all of the non-coding DNA, or so-called junk DNA. Much of why Oxytricha presents such an intricate genomic landscape remains a mystery, and for Dr. Landweber, the leading expert on this single-celled protist, that wide-open field for potential discovery is what got her hooked.