Emily Dykhuizen’s hope for new cancer treatments: Epigenetics

Emily Dykhuizen

Emily Dykhuizen considers herself lucky. “I haven’t known many people who’ve died young of cancer,” she says. “Those are some of the real tragedies, and often it happens very fast.”

But peering into the microscope at cancer cells every day, she spends a lot of time thinking about the personal stories behind the disease. Now that she’s a parent, she’s even more determined to discover new therapies for people she’s never met and for people who have yet to be diagnosed. “It really drives me to figure things out for the next generation, so that they won’t have so much suffering,” says Dykhuizen, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology.

Dykhuizen’s hope for new treatments lies in epigenetics, variations caused by environmental factors that can lead to cancer and other diseases. “We’re now realizing that epigenetic dysregulation is a huge driver of cancer and chemotherapy resistance,” she says. Because epigenetics don’t affect our underlying genetic code, they can potentially be reversed to halt the progression of cancer.

“We’re working on the whole spectrum,” she says. “The first part: when these epigenetic regulators are mutated or overexpressed, how do they change gene expression? And the second: what does that mean for treatment?”

Two kinds of cancers that appear to be promising targets for epigenetics therapy are clear cell renal carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer, and glioblastoma, a highly invasive brain tumor. While the prognosis is usually good when clear cell carcinoma is diagnosed early, if it spreads beyond the kidneys before being detected, survival rates plummet.

Glioblastomas tend to grow rapidly. Nourished by blood vessels, they bury themselves deep in the brain, where they are nearly impossible to remove without causing brain damage. Long-term survival rates are very low. “The things that unite these two cancers is that both are resistant to chemotherapy,” Dykhuizen says.

Using genomic sequencing, a technique that analyzes gene regulation, and high-throughput screening, a process that rapidly assesses chemical structures to identify new drugs, Dykhuizen is studying how chromatins — a complex of DNA, RNA and proteins — affect cancer development.

“We’re hoping to understand how cancer cells harness these normal processes for bad essentially. That’s really the tragedy of cancer; cancer is our cells gone wrong,” she says.
Ultimately, that could lead to new treatments for some of these harder-to-treat diagnoses. “We think that by targeting epigenetic regulators we can not only treat cancer but also make them more susceptible to chemotherapy,” she says.

Above: Emily Dykhuizen is an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)