Science for You: A worldwide epigenetics screening pipeline

 Sophie Lelièvre
Sophie Lelièvre. Photo by Vincent Walter.

3/1/2017 |

Natural remedies like plants, mushrooms and herbs have been handed down across  generations all over the world. They have been known to treat many types of diseases. Unfortunately, these antidotes stay local, and are not often shared outside the community. Also, many countries do not have the possibility to analyze these natural compounds for their influence on known disease pathways, which prevents uncovering new potential treatments.

Now, an interdisciplinary global team of researchers is helping to create a global repository network of these local remedies in the hopes of learning more about their health benefits, especially in the prevention of cancer.

Dr. Sophie Lelièvre, a professor of cancer pharmacology in the College of Veterinary Medicine; co-leader, drug delivery and molecular sensing program in the NCI-designated Purdue University Center for Cancer Research; and scientific director of the 3-D Cell Culture Core (3D3C) facility in the Birck Nanotechnology Center, is leading the charge in a new screening pipeline that focuses on epigenetics (the analysis of chemical changes on and around genes that are involved in gene expression control) to identify environmental factors with epigenetic impact.

“Many life-impacting chronic diseases such as neurodegenerative disorders and cancers are influenced by epigenetic changes,” she says. Some environmental factors, like toxins in the air or water, turn on disease-causing genes. Others, like certain plants and fungi, might
have protective effects. Lelièvre’s biobank focuses on the latter, documenting the
positive health impacts that local specimens have had on regions all over the world.

Because many of these beneficial effects are not scientifically understood, scientists
cannot test the bioactive ingredients that cause the beneficial effects directly on humans.
Therefore, suspected bioactive ingredients must first be identified and tested in an “organ-on-a-chip,” a 3-D cell culture method that harnesses advanced engineering to mimic the organization and activities of different organs in the laboratory.

“The work has to be done with the proper model system to accurately identify bioactives
that have an epigenetic impact and determine how they are working,” says Lelièvre, who is
developing the 3-D cell culture models in her laboratory and in the 3D3C.

Already, her team of researchers has organized specimens from locations including Taiwan,
France and Lebanon that are part of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition
(IBCN) collaboration. “The beauty of the organ-on a-chip model system is that it can
ultimately be used with cells obtained from human populations of different origins,
enabling an understanding of how natural compounds of medicinal plants and other
natural species might work better in some populations than in others,” she says.

Writer: Sarah Anderson,