Why Epigenetics is Capturing Everyone’s Attention
Q&A with the Director of MSK’s Center for Epigenetics Research
Kristian Helin, PhD, is MSK’s newly recruited Chair of the Cell Biology Program of Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI) and Director of our Center for Epigenetics Research. We recently had the opportunity to chat with him about his work.
What is epigenetics?
The epigenetic system regulates gene expression in cells, so the right proteins are in the right cells at the right time. It provides stability within the body—once a cell learns how to function, it does the same job until it dies. When the system becomes destabilized, cancer can develop.
Why are cancer researchers so excited about this field?
In the past decade, we’ve learned that many epigenetic genes are mutated in cancer. We always knew this machinery was important, but now we know it drives many types of cancers. And so we are starting to develop new drugs that target its malfunctions.
What is your vision for epigenetics research at MSK?
We still need to learn how the epigenetic system regulates gene expression and cell identity, and I think we can do that here through cross-disciplinary collaboration. The Center for Epigenetics Research brings together several scientific disciplines, including developmental, structural, chemical, and systems biology researchers. That’s the only way we’re going to figure out the impact epigenetics has on normal development, how its alterations can lead to cancer, and how to use this knowledge to advance treatment options.
What does your research focus on?
Fundamental biological questions in the laboratory, which have the potential to lead to the development of new drugs. It’s fascinating to carry an idea from the laboratory to patients, and see the difference it can make.
My lab investigates how epigenetic proteins regulate normal cellular processes and how their alterations can lead to cancer, asking: “Why are these proteins changed in cancer, and what do they regulate?” “Does this give us insight into how normal development would be regulated?” And “Can we use this insight to understand how proteins change to develop cancer?”
These questions drive us to identify chromatin-associated proteins that are involved in cancer, to elucidate their function and determine if they could be good drug targets. We have had success in doing this and several drugs are now in clinical trial targeting some of the epigenetic proteins we are working on.
What excites you most in the field right now?
New treatments. I would really like to see the FDA approve some of the epigenetic drugs that are in clinical trials so that patients everywhere can benefit. Drugs targeting one of the protein complexes we’ve worked on for 15 years are now in trials for lymphomas and other cancers.
Also, a major priority in cancer research today is to learn why immunotherapies are effective for some patients and not others, and make these medications work better and longer for more people. I think we may be able to accomplish this by combining epigenetic drugs with immunotherapies—the epigenetic inhibitors could mobilize some of the immunotherapy targets, making the drugs work better. This could potentially make a real difference for patients.
What do you believe the field of epigenetics will achieve in the next 5 to 10 years?
The use of new technologies will help us understand how epigenetics works: how the epigenetic proteins regulate different biological processes such as transcription, differentiation and development. These tools include gene editing (CRISPR) and some single-cell technologies. This will all be important for studying tumor heterogeneity—the many different cells within each tumor. By learning what every cell is doing, we’ll gain a better understanding of how cancer develops and changes over time, which will help us find better ways to fight it.