Cancer epigenetic research as a bridge between academia–industry partnerships

Cancer epigenetics is an area of ongoing research that deepens our understanding of the molecular pathogenesis of cancer and creates new avenues for the identification of novel therapeutic targets.

Adapted from Qiu J. Epigenetics: unfinished symphony. Nature. 2006; 441(7090):143-5
Figure 1 | Epigenetic elements: Chromatin, the main component of chromosomes, is the result of DNA-histone interaction [Adapted from Qiu J. Nature. 2006; 441(7090):143-5]
The term “epigenetics” was originally proposed by Conrad Waddington in 1942 to describe the molecular mechanisms independent of alterations in the DNA sequence, whereby gene expression is reversibly modified in a heritable manner. There are three main epigenetic mechanisms: (i) DNA methylation; (ii) histone modification; and (iii) chromatin remodeling.

DNA methylation that occurs specifically on cytosine residues preceding guanine forming a ‘CpG’ dinucleotide pair, plays a fundamental role during embryonic development and cancer.  Global loss of methylation (hypomethylation) and gene-specific silencing through promoter hypermethylation have long been recognized as common features of cancer genomes.

Epigenetic deregulation has been established as an important player in melanoma development. Hypermethylation of CpG islands located in the promoter regions of tumour suppressor genes is a common mechanism of gene silencing. It has also been shown that DNA hydroxymethylation (loss of 5-hmC) is increasingly lost during melanoma progression and is associated with poor prognostic factors.

The PhD project I am conducting at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in the Netherlands aims at studying the role of (hydroxy)methylation in the progression of melanoma, more precisely assessing where the melanoma genome hydroxymethylation is diminished and how this correlates with promoter hypermethylation.

To address this goal we will perform a simultaneous genome-wide analysis of DNA methylation and hydroxymethylation in primary melanoma biopsy samples. For this purpose, we are collaborating with Genome Scan, a biotechnology company.

A win-win partnership

Nowadays, academia and industry are combining their expertise and common scientific goals in order to achieve successful partnerships, from which all stakeholders might benefit.

Adapted from illustration by Eliot Wyatt (Watson-Capps JJ, Cech TR. Academia and industry: Companies on campus. Nature. 2014; 514(7522):297-8. )
Figure 2 | Academia–industry partnerships [Adapted from Watson-Capps JJ, Cech TR. Nature. 2014; 514(7522):297-8]
For the hosting Company, the establishment of close collaborations with experts in a specific academic field and highly motivated and enthusiastic PhD students, who bring together in-depth knowledge promoting scientific thinking, is of great importance. The company will gain access to new ideas and technologies before they reach public knowledge. This expertise sharing and technology transfer promotes a quicker translation into marketable products, services and business models.

For the University, this collaboration with a biotechnology company might improve the access to European and international funding opportunities. Moreover, the university aims to foster scientific growth of its students. Namely, students being enrolled in such a program will be granted with the opportunity to develop applied scientific expertise and to acquire basic business thinking skills, and project and time management attributes, to complement their training during the development of their research activities. Therefore, an industrial experience might empower the student’s CV making it more competitive and suitable for both industrial and academic job markets.

Related information

Pronk JT, Lee SY, Lievense J, Pierce J, Palsson B, Uhlen M, Nielsen J. How to set up collaborations between academia and industrial biotech companies. Nat Biotechnol. 2015; 33(3):237-40.

Watson-Capps JJ, Cech TR. Academia and industry: Companies on campus. Nature. 2014; 514(7522):297-8.

Chris Tachibana.  Opening Industry-Academic Partnerships Science. Science. 2013

– Written by Catarina Salgado, ESR08