Apr 152012

In a recent seminar trip to University of Michigan, I met with Bruce Richardson who explained the very interesting etiology of lupus, an autoimmune disease. He told me that lupus is caused by DNA demethylation, and substances that decrease DNA methylation could cause lupus as a side effect. Cancer drugs such as 5-aza with demethylation effect certainly have similar side effect, but cancer patients usually have bigger worries than DNA demethylation and lupus. He also explained why females are more likely to develop lupus, because an important autoimmune gene is on the X-chr. Females should have one X-chr silenced except in lupus patients, whereas males only have one copy of the gene to express.

Because of Bing Ren‘s talk on the association of aging with increased H3K27me3, I had always assumed that DNA methylation increases with aging. However, Bruce told me that in general DNA methylation decrease with aging, which could agree with Michael Zhang‘s idea that transposable elements are more active with aging. So perhaps the increased H3K27me3 with aging reflects the way cells compensate for the loss of DNA methylation. Since DNA methylation and H3K27me3 have their respective genome-wide specificities, maybe the specificity difference between the two could help explain the common aging-related disease.

Bruce also mentioned that antioxidant can reinforce DNA methylation, which partly explains why it is an anti-aging and anti-lupus agent. Also, from David Moore‘s research before, having a methylation-rich diet (plenty from vitamin tablet) could also prevent DNA demethylation, and perhaps aging as well.

Apr 072012

American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) has over 30K members, and the annual conference is one of the biggest scientific events in cancer. AACR 2012 attracted over 17K attendees, and is also the first AACR I attended. Because I brought my son to see Chicago and the Sears Tower, I missed many scientific talks and sessions. None the less, as my cancer 101 experience, it is still very interesting. There are three observations:

Computational cancer biology plays a surprisingly small role at AACR. Among the 17K attendees and thousands of abstract submissions, there were only 58 abstracts submitted to the computational biology track, which were presented in two poster sessions. Since the invention of microarrays, cancer biologists have been increasingly using genomic and other high throughput approaches, so computational biologists must be playing essential roles in their studies. Somehow they are not attracted to this meeting, or their importance has been underestimated. Being the chairperson of the track, I have to say that some of the abstracts we reviewed are just awful! There are many good computational biologists doing great work in cancer, such as Andrea Califano, Dana Pe’er, Peter Laird, Rafael Irizarry, Aviv Regev, Franzisca Michor, Yi Xing, Ting Wang, Josh Stuart, Jeff Chang, Gad Getz, and many more… I will try to help bring better computational biology to AACR in the future.

Epigenetics is still in its infancy. Many scientists and companies feel that they cannot miss out on epigenetics, but some don’t really know what questions they want to use epigenetics to answer, so actually don’t know the best way to conduct their epigenetics studies. Epigenetics is definitely important, but there is also hype. If used well, epigenetics can bring amazingly useful information to cancer studies. We should help bring good study design, experimental techniques, and analysis methods to the cancer field.

Asian scientists are under represented in the AACR leadership. There are numerous committees, awards, sessions and workshops, but very few chaired or even participated by Asian scientists. However, there are many excellent Asian cancer biologists doing outstanding work, but most just keep to themselves, and are not actively involved in the community. This is not just in science, but also clearly seen in industry and politics. Jewish really help each other and have a good sense of community, and this help them as a whole in every aspect. Nobody is born to take initiatives in the community, but we have to try, especially when we are young.

Coming to AACR, I realized how puny I am in the cancer field, but there are also good opportunities for me to make a good contribution. Now that I am determined to work on cancer, I should come back to AACR every year in the future. I also hope to bring better computational biology and epigenetics approaches, and more Asian scientists to the cancer community.