Press and Public Relations

Second European Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer

No. 24c | 09/05/2017 | by Koh

From May 11th to May 13th the German Cancer Research Center is hosting the Second European Conference on Epigenetics and Cancer. About 200 scientists from all over the world will be exchanging views on how small chemical changes in DNA or in their packaging proteins contribute to cancer development, how they could improve cancer diagnosis, or even how they could serve as the target for new cancer therapies.

© Schuster/DKFZ

In addition to genetic information that is embedded in the DNA base sequence, there is a second code of life: chemical changes in DNA or in their packaging proteins, the histones, form an additional control level which determines which genes are actually read. This "epigenetic" code has a decisive influence on all cellular processes – and therefore also on whether a cell develops into a cancer cell.

"The research projects that are concerned with the connection between epigenesis and cancer have become quite numerous. It's high time we provided a platform for this topic via regular conferences so that we can facilitate the exchange of ideas," says Christoph Plass from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), one of the organizers of the event. His DKFZ colleague Karsten Rippe, also one of the organizers, adds: "The conference will from now on be held every two years and will cover the field in its entirety."

A whole section of the conference is concerned with the question of how changes in the epigenetic code can disrupt the carefully balanced interplay of cellular signal pathways and therefore facilitate cancer growth. Joseph Costello from the University of San Francisco describes how genetic and epigenetic mutations develop almost in tandem and in close proximity to each other while brain tumors transition from benign to malignant, and eventually allow the cell to degenerate altogether.

The epigenetic programming is crucial to the identity of a cell. Frank Lyko of the DKFZ examines this point in his talk. He has discovered indications that various subtypes of colon cancer from different original cells originate in the intestinal mucosa. This could allow for the specific DNA-Methylation patterns of the cells to be used for the exact classification of colon tumors.

Toshikazu Ushijima of the National Cancer Research Institute in Tokyo sees epigenetic patterns as helpful biomarkers: With certain types of cancer, such as a neuroblastoma or stomach cancer, these patterns could be used to predict the further development of the illness.

In countless questions, cancer epigenesis has left basic research behind and scientists are already applying their knowledge into practical clinical applications. Stephen B. Baylin of the Johns Hopkin University School of Medicine, Baltimore, is one of the pioneers in this field. He reports various approaches of utilizing epigenetic changes in tumors as target structures for new cancer therapies. Other projects are already in the clinical test phase. Olaf Witt, of the DKFZ and Heidelberg University Hospital, has already reported completing a clinical study. It tested the efficacy of the epigenetically functioning medication Vorinostat on leukemia and solid tumors with children – the analysis of the trial will follow soon.

Journalists are cordially invited to attend the conference.

The German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ) with its more than 3,000 employees is the largest biomedical research institute in Germany. At DKFZ, more than 1,000 scientists investigate how cancer develops, identify cancer risk factors and endeavor to find new strategies to prevent people from getting cancer. They develop novel approaches to make tumor diagnosis more precise and treatment of cancer patients more successful. The staff of the Cancer Information Service (KID) offers information about the widespread disease of cancer for patients, their families, and the general public. Jointly with Heidelberg University Hospital, DKFZ has established the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, where promising approaches from cancer research are translated into the clinic. In the German Consortium for Translational Cancer Research (DKTK), one of six German Centers for Health Research, DKFZ maintains translational centers at seven university partnering sites. Combining excellent university hospitals with high-profile research at a Helmholtz Center is an important contribution to improving the chances of cancer patients. DKFZ is a member of the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers, with ninety percent of its funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the remaining ten percent from the State of Baden-Württemberg.

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