What switches genes on and off?


What switches genes on and off?

Looking at the epigenetics in paediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease.


Providing robust evidence that epigenetic mechanisms are critical in the development of
IBD would open up the real possibility of a whole new approach to treatment.

Dr Matthias Zilbauer, University of Cambridge

What is this research looking at?

Over the last few decades there has been a steady increase in the number of children diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).  This increase is most noticeable in ‘western’ countries, although it is now occurring in developing countries, particularly countries which are more rapidly adapting a ‘western’ urban lifestyle and diet.  This cannot just be down to genetics, there must be environmental and lifestyles factors involved which are affecting the way genes are turned on and off. The inner lining of the gut is the largest organ to be exposed to the environment, so the researchers want to look at the genes and their function in the cells lining the gut (the epithelial cells).

In particular, the researchers want to look at epigenetic mechanisms – these are biological mechanisms which can switch genes on or off.  Changes to diet, the processing of food, and toxins have all been shown to influence epigenetics.  The researchers want to investigate one epigenetic mechanism called ‘DNA methylation’.  The methylation marker attaches to the DNA strand, and shuts down the genes in that section.  They have already found that there is a difference in these markers in the gut lining of children with IBD compared to healthy children.  They now want to confirm this finding and extend it to a larger group of samples from children with IBD.   Eventually, they hope to discover whether these epigenetic markers can be used in clinic in order to improve diagnosis and help predict disease course, meaning that drug treatment can be tailored to that particular patient.

What do the researchers think this could mean for people with IBD?

The researchers hope that the results will help improve understanding of how IBD occurs.  A number of drugs are already being developed to specifically target epigenetic mechanisms in human cells in other chronic conditions, and the hope is that this research would open up a whole new approach to treatment of IBD.  The researchers also hope to develop a way of identifying epigenetic markers in children with IBD in order to help predict how an individual patient’s disease will progress, and how best to treat them.

Who is leading this research? Dr Matthias Zilbauer, University of Cambridge

Project cost: £115,701

Duration: 24 months

Official title of application: Epigenetics in Paediatric IBD role as a clinical biomarker