Leading experts gathered at NIEHS June 1-2 to share their latest findings on how environmental exposures may influence epigenetic changes to stem cells. Epigenetics refers to changes in DNA that alter the expression of genes without changing the underlying amino acid sequence.
“The symposium was a success, with speakers from the fields of epigenetics, stem cell biology, and environmental health,” said Guang Hu, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Stem Cell Biology Group and one of the organizers of the event.
“We had a great turnout,” Hu added. The more than 200 registered attendees represented researchers from around the country. Participants also included scientists from all three NIEHS divisions, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., welcomed the crowd. “This event was designed to encourage interaction and sharing of late-breaking research on epigenetics and stem cell biology as related to environmental health,” he said, “and to convene an expert panel, to produce a set of recommendations for future research.”
He pointed out that the symposium built on the results of a 2013 meeting at NIEHS on cutting-edge stem cell research. In the coming months, organizers will prepare a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Sessions foster cross-disciplinary exchange
Zeldin described the invited speakers as a Who’s Who in their fields, ranging from developmental biologists to cancer researchers and immunologists. Speakers in the six sessions discussed advances in their studies of exposures and mechanisms that may be involved in epigenetic changes.
- Pluripotent Stem Cells and the mechanisms governing them, in both mouse and human cells.
- Stem Cells and Development, including DNA methylation, gene transcription mediated by long-coding RNA, and specific stem cell states within breast cancer tumors.
- Chromatin Biology, especially within the context of human disease. Chromatin remodeling is a form of epigenetic change that involves the shape of the DNA molecule, which determines whether it is available for binding with proteins, such as transcription factors.
- Transcriptional Control, which involves regions of DNA known as transcription enhancers and promoters, with a focus on their roles in cancer.
- Epigenetic Regulation included talks on epigenetic roles in immune responses and inactivation of the X chromosome.
- Stem Cells and Environment speakers addressed dioxin’s disruption of embryonic cardiac cells, endocrine disruption, and mechanisms in cancer and certain rare human cells.
“The sessions were well connected, and stimulated lots of inspiring questions and discussions, especially about how different epigenetic mechanisms can influence gene transcription, and how environmental stimuli can impact the epigenetic and transcription status of the cell,” Hu said afterward.
“This meeting has been both enlightening and a little bit humbling,” said one participant, highlighting the cross-disciplinary nature of the material.
The probing discussions stimulated by the talks carried over into the poster session, which featured NIEHS scientists and academic researchers from around the country. Trainees and vendors also exhibited new tools and research.
“The organizers really invited the right people — they’re all leaders in their fields,” remarked Humphrey Yao, Ph.D., who was not involved in the symposium but attended the poster session in which an old friend was presenting.
Research to bridge the gaps
The symposium closed with a workshop to identify future directions, especially those that will bridge the gaps between individual focus areas.
“We want to harness the power of different cell-based tools to study a wide range of health outcomes and a wide range of exposures,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). Such meetings, where NIEHS gathers interdisciplinary researchers to share cutting-edge science, are tools NIEHS is using to help drive the science forward, she explained.
Les Reinlib, Ph.D., from DERT, led the brainstorming session, calling for an informal exchange of ideas. “What next steps will stimulate the field?” he asked the expert panel. Afterward, Hu noted that several recurring themes surfaced, in terms of potential research directions, collaborations, and funding areas.