NIEHS grantee Howard Chang, M.D., Ph.D., received the 2018 National Academy of Science (NAS) Award in Molecular Biology for his discovery of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs). The honor also recognizes his invention of certain genomic sequencing technologies.
Chang was funded in part under the NIEHS TaRGET I grant program for studies of how DNA transcription is affected by exposures to toxicants. “Dr. Chang is a physician-scientist who made major contributions to genome science,” wrote NAS in a statement announcing the award.
“I am delighted on behalf of my mentors, students, and collaborators,” said Chang, a professor of dermatology at Stanford University. “This award brings some attention to a field of study focused on the noncoding genome, which is a part of human DNA about which we know so little.”
Worldwide impact on research
Fred Tyson, Ph.D., a program director in the NIEHS Genes, Environment and Health Branch, is very familiar with Chang and his accomplishments.
“Dr. Chang’s work revolutionized how some studies in transcriptional regulation are conducted, both by NIEHS-supported scientists and others all over the world,” said Tyson. “NIEHS is very pleased to have supported some of the work that is being recognized.”
LncRNAs are large RNA molecules found throughout the human genome. Unlike other RNAs, they are not directly involved in making proteins. Rather, lncRNAs take on different roles in cells, helping fine tune their responses to DNA damage from environmental exposures.
“LncRNAs can fold into complex shapes, like origami, and carry out many different functions,” said Chang. “They can do all these things because they are the brains of some molecular machines.”
He explained that lncRNA can locate specific DNA sequences in the genome and function as both a guide and a timer for epigenetic modification. Epigenetic changes affect the function of DNA but do not make changes in the underlying DNA sequence. “When we think about epigenetics, we’re really thinking about gene memory over time,” Chang said in 2015, at an NIEHS epigenetics symposium.
Deciphering regulatory information in the human genome has important implications for studies of development, cancer, and aging. It offers the potential to provide new biomarkers for disease and drug development. Disease diagnosis and therapy is a long-term term goal of Chang’s laboratory.
Change directs Stanford’s Center for Personal Dynamic Regulomes, which is a National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence in Genomic Sciences. He is also a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)