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GENETICS & EPIGENETICS

Research in G&E labs is broadly focused on the fundamental genetic, epigenetic, and genomic mechanisms that control cell growth and differentiation, and that cause cancer and other human diseases.

Welcome to G&E!

The Genetics & Epigenetics (G&E) Program is a research-oriented PhD and MS program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The research in G&E labs is broadly focused on the fundamental genetic, epigenetic, and genomic mechanisms that control cell growth and differentiation, and that cause cancer and other human diseases. From basic science investigations to translational studies, G&E students and faculty are actively engaged in the pursuit of new scientific knowledge that could one day lead to clinical advances.

The Program aims to train students who are knowledgeable, critical, and productive independent scientists. We achieve this through cutting-edge research projects, classes, seminars, retreat, laboratory collaborations, social gatherings and career development activities.

G&E labs are located throughout the Texas Medical Center, including MD Anderson and UTHealth (McGovern Medical School, School of Public Health, School of Dentistry, and School of Biomedical Informatics). 

Genome data photograph for G&E
  • Welcome from the Directors
    Welcome to the Genetics & Epigenetics Program!

    As molecular biology and genomics have blurred the boundaries between biomedical graduate programs, our Genetics & Epigenetics (G&E) Program is distinguished by our fundamental research, all-round students, and committed faculty. We are proud of these core characteristics; they also help us to weather the uncertainties from the COVID-19 pandemic.

          As detailed on our website, the G&E Program tackles foundational questions in development and disease that can be grouped into five research areas: epigenetics, developmental genetics, human genetics, cancer genetics, and genome maintenance and repair. Using a diverse array of model organisms, such as fruit flies, worms, zebrafish, frogs, and mice, we are pinpointing key nodes of biology that become dysregulated in inherited or acquired abnormalities including cancer, and thus identifying potential diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to be further developed by biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

          Our Program of ~50 students is the Goldilocks size – small enough for individualized attention and large enough for vibrant academic and social interactions including retreats, symposia, and art shows. Our curriculum is designed and taught to hone skills in critical thinking, bioinformatics, and verbal and written communication. Numerous faculty-guided, student-led events help nurture organizational and leadership skills. As a result, having Genetics and Epigenetics on the diploma embodies well-balanced training.

          Our Program faculty are committed to spending their most precious commodity – time – to help students advance their intellectual and professional pursuits. A student’s success is inherently also their mentor’s, lab’s, program’s, and school’s success. This principle aligns with a fundamental motivation for any scientist to have an enduring legacy – both from their scientific discoveries and from mentoring the next generation of scholars.

          The pandemic shut down or delayed research and upended the work routine. However, despite the waves of cases, pandemic is temporary, whereas science is timeless. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. As scientists who are used to persevering and innovating, we are leveraging technology to bring people closer, as exemplified by the higher attendance of virtual thesis defenses, inclusion of overseas speakers in our science historical perspective series, and ease in joining virtual conferences at a lower cost and without the difficulties and expense of traveling.

          From crises also come revelations, and we have an invigorated commitment to improving inclusion in our community and science in general – embracing racial, gender, and nationality diversities. Inclusivity is a foundation for the diverse perspectives and ideas that make science robust and innovative.

    Jichao Chen, PhD, Program Director
    Francesca Cole, PhD, Program Co-Director

  • G&E Research Areas

    The G&E Program is broadly focused on the fundamental genetic, epigenetic, and genomic mechanisms that control cell growth and differentiation, and that cause cancer and other human diseases. From basic science investigations to translational studies, G&E students and faculty are actively engaged in the pursuit of new scientific knowledge that could one day lead to clinical advances. Below are the broad areas of research being performed in G&E Program labs.

    • Epigenetics
    • Developmental Genetics
    • Human Genetics
    • Cancer Genetics
    • Genome Maintenance & Repair

    Epigenetics

    Nearly every cell in our body has the exact same genome, yet that DNA blueprint is interpreted differently in specific settings to create many different cell types. How is the same genetic code read so differently to generate this cellular diversity? How do defects in reading the code lead to pathologies?  

    The answers to these questions are found in the study of epigenetics, which refers to heritable phenotypic changes that are not mediated by changes in DNA sequence but rather by alterations in genome organization.

    DNA is highly compacted within the eukaryotic nucleus in the form of chromatin, which is built from repeating units of histone-DNA particles called nucleosomes.  Nucleosome placement, density, and higher order folding all impact accessibility of DNA sequences to transcription factors and regulatory proteins, thereby affecting patterns of gene expression.

    Changes in chromatin structure control where, when and at what level genes are expressed during embryogenesis and after birth.  They also control cellular responses to environmental and physiological changes. Moreover, proper chromatin organization is crucial for maintenance of genome integrity. 

    Epigenetic abnormalities are associated with loss of cell identity, genome instability, deregulated growth, and abnormal response to signal transduction pathways, thereby contributing to disease states.  

    The G&E Program faculty are defining how epigenetic factors impact gene transcription, DNA recombination, DNA repair, and DNA replication in normal cells in order to understand how epigenetic abnormalities contribute to cancer development and progression. 

    Since epigenetic changes are often reversible, our studies provide strong molecular frameworks for the development of new therapies targeting regulators of key epigenetic events such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, or expression of non-coding RNAs.

    Developmental Genetics

    It is remarkable that a single cell, the fertilized egg, will consistently form an individual with differentiated tissues and organs, positioned correctly within the body. What are the genes that regulate these processes during embryogenesis? How do different cells and tissues interact to form functional organs and organ systems? Which genes when mutated lead to birth defects?

    These types of questions can be answered by studying developmental genetics, which focuses on genes and genetic pathways that regulate embryological, postnatal, and regenerative processes.

    In the G&E Program, numerous labs utilize genetic approaches in model organisms including Drosophila, C. elegans, Xenopus, zebrafish, and mouse, to study a variety of developmental processes.

    These processes include cell fate and differentiation, inductive interactions between tissues, tissue morphogenesis and organogenesis, and stem cell biology and regeneration. A primary strength using these model systems is that these studies are predominantly carried out in vivo.

    Interestingly, many of the genes used by the embryo during development are also deployed later in the adult organism to regulate physiological processes, including homeostasis, wound healing and regeneration. Thus, many of the G&E Program labs exploit these model systems to study genes involved in physiological processes that when altered lead to pathologies that mimic human diseases. Basic knowledge produced by developmental studies fuels translational and clinical research that one day will lead to disease therapies.

    Human Genetics

    Why do some people have an increased lifetime risk for developing cancer or chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease? Is there a genetic explanation for the repeated occurrence of these conditions among members of the same family? What are the genetic variants inherited within families that can be detected and linked to these conditions?

    The answers to these questions are found in the study of human genetics. Human genetics research has the primary goal of identifying the molecular basis of inherited disorders, elucidating the genetic and genomic basis of chronic conditions, as well as developing computational tools based on analytical methods to identify disease susceptibility loci and individuals at risk for developing disease.

    Human genetics research involves utilizing a broad set of techniques and knowledge, including the basic principles of molecular biology, mendelian genetics and the latest genomic tools, including next-generation DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.

    G&E Program faculty are identifying mutations and genetic variants that provide a molecular explanation of inherited human diseases. Understanding the molecular basis of human genetic diseases can lead to disease prevention and the development of treatments and cures.

    Cancer Genetics

    Cancer is a genetic disease. Mutations that cause cancer alter fundamental cell behaviors, including growth, proliferation, and migration.  How do you identify genes that influence cancer formation and progression?

    One way is to use human genetics to identify cancer-causing gene mutations that are inherited. Another way is to correlate genetic lesions found in sporadically occurring tumors. A powerful approach to identify and understand cancer-causing genes is to use model organisms.

    In the G&E Program, these model organisms include the fruit fly (Drosophila), the nematode worm (C. elegans), zebrafish, and the mouse. These systems can be used for large-scale in vivo genetic screens to identify cancer-causing genes or candidate cancer-causing genes can be engineered to create models of human cancer. These powerful genetic systems have led to the identification of genetic pathways that regulate cell behaviors that when mutated lead to tumor formation and metastasis.

    Human patients and families with genetic defects contribute to our studies and help inform our thinking as we ultimately hope that this knowledge can provide cures.

    Genome Maintenance and Repair

    The genome is constantly being challenged by internal and external forces that cause DNA damage. DNA damage results from both programmed cellular processes, such as those required for meiotic crossover and antibody diversity, and spontaneous damage, such as errors in DNA replication, the cellular generation of damage-inducing chemicals, exposure to irradiation or chemicals present in the environment.

    Cells have developed many distinct ways to repair DNA damage, but not all DNA damage is properly repaired. Incorrectly repaired DNA damage can lead to genome rearrangements from point mutations to chromosome breaks or loss. Incorrectly repaired DNA can also lead to programmed cell death.

    How do cells recognize, respond to and correctly repair DNA damage? How does improper repair influence genome stability? How does failure to repair lead to programmed cell death? How do cancer cells with genome damage bypass cell death?

    Many G&E Program laboratories are uncovering how cells recognize and respond to DNA damage, with an emphasis on the genetic and epigenetic factors involved in these processes. G&E Program labs are defining the protein complexes and enzymatic activities that recognize and repair different types of DNA damage, while discovering signaling pathways induced to impose cell cycle checkpoints, to facilitate DNA repair, and to promote other cellular process such as programmed cell death. Ultimately these discoveries will lead to novel strategies for increasing the vulnerability of cancer cells to specific therapeutic strategies.

Activities and Awards

  • Year-Round Activities

    G&E Monthly and Bimonthly Program Events

    G&E GEM Student Seminar Series. Two students present their thesis research in 20-minute talks. Everyone welcome!

    G&E Faculty Insight Series. Informal dialog (without slides) with a faculty member about their career and how they have navigated scientific and career challenges.


    2021 G&E EVENTS

    Coming Soon!

    G&E New Student Information Session: August 24, 2:30 - 4:30 pm
    G&E September GEM Student Seminar: September 9 at 12:00 pm

    Annual Events

    G&E Annual Retreat: October 22-23, 201
    G&E Spring Career Symposium: April 23, 2021: Schedule and Information
    G&E and Neuroscience 2021 Arts Showcase: January 27, 2021More information and Exhibitor Program
    G&E Lunar New Year Event: February 25, 2021 

    G&E Gem Student Seminar Series scientific and career challenges. 

    July GEM: Malcolm Moses (Richard Behringer lab): "Identifying enhancers in sex determination" and Ruoyu Wang (Wenbo Li Lab): "Mapping m6A modification on nascent RNAs"

    June GEM: Celine Kong (Jichao Chen lab): "Role of endothelial NTRK2 in respiratory virus-induced lung injury" and Jie Ye (Jianjun ZHang and Nicholas Navin labs): "The impact of subclonal diversity on clinical outcomes in localized NSCLS"

    May GEM: Ahmed Emam (Bin Wang lab): "Investigating the role of Abro1 in DNA damage-induced immune response" and Archit Ghosh (Kunal Rai lab): "Disentangling hierarchical chromatin loops in melanoma metastasis"

    April GEM: Jace Aloway (Richard Behringer lab): "ACVR1 signaling in sex determination" and Phuoc Nguyen (Wenbo Li lab): "Improving immune checkpoint therapy to breast cancer by targeting RNA binding protein"

    March GEM: Ruth Barros De Paul (John Tainer lab): "Unveiling the role of G-quadruplex DNA and G4-22 in human genetics" and Jellisa Ewan (Ambro van Hoof lab): "Investigating the uncharted functions of the Dcp2 decapping enzyme"

    February GEM: Amelie Albrecht (Xuetong Shen lab): "Actin tyrosine phosphorylation as a novel regulator of PI3K signaling" and Frederick Robinson (Giulio Draetta lab): "TP53 dependent adaptation to XPO1 inhibitor unmasks novel sequential drug combinations in colorectal cancer"

    January GEM: Safia Essien (George Eisenhoffer lab): "Assessing the role of MIF in apoptosis-induced proliferation in zebrafish

    G&E Rotation Talks

    March 2021
    May 2021

    G&E G&E Faculty Insight Series (FIS)

    May FIS: Rachel Miller, PhD, Associate Professor, Pediatrics-Research, UTHealth
    April FIS: Richard Wood, PhD, Professor, Epigenetics & Molecular Carcinogenesis, MD Anderson
    March FIS:George Eisenhoffer, PhD, Assistant Professor, Genetics, MD Anderson
    January FIS: Michelle Hildebrandt, P:hD, Associate Professor, Lymphoma-Myeloma, MD Anderson

    G&E Historical Perspectives in Science Lecture

    July 2021: Nathaniel Comfort, PhD, Johns Hopkins University
    February 2021: Nicole Nelson, PhD, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison

     

  • Student Award Recipients
    Congratulations G&E Student Fellowship, Scholarship and Award Recipients! (partial list, 2018-2021)

    Amelie Albrecht (Advisor, Xuetong Shen, PhD)
    Dr. John J. Kopchick Research Award, 2020-2021 ($50,000)
    Terry and Janet Klebe Fellowship, 2018-2019 (stipend & tuition)

    Vahid Bahrambeigi (Advisor, Anirban Maitra, MBBS)
    Rosalie B. Hite Fellowship, 2021-2022

    Alexandria Blackburn (Rachel Miller, PhD)
    GSBS Presidents' Research Scholarship 2020
    The Schissler Foundation Fellowship, 2019-2020 (stipend & tuition)
    McGovern Medical School Dean's Research Award 2020

    Safia Essien (George Eisenhoffer, PhD)
    American Legion Auxiliary Fellowship in Cancer Research, 2020-2021, 2021-2022
    Tzu Chi Scholar, 2020

    Aimee Farria (Advisor,  Sharon Dent, PhD)
    Andrew Sowell and Wade Huggins Professor and Fellowship, 2018-2019 renewal (stipend & tuition)

    Jovanka Gencel Augusto (Advisor, Gigi Lozano, PhD) 
    Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellow, 2021
    Rosalie B. Hite Graduate Fellowships in Cancer Research, 2019-2022 (stipend & tuition)
    Tzu Chi Scholar, 2020

    Archit Ghosh (Advisor, Kunal Rai, PhD)
    Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellow, 2021

    I-Lin Ho (Advisor, Giulio Draetta, MD,PhD)
    Pauline Altman-Goldstein Foundation Discovery Fellowship (stipend & tuition)
    TC Hsu Memorial Scholarship, 2019-2020

    Rhea Kang (Advisor, Francesca Cole, PhD)
    Alfred G. Knudson, Jr., Outstanding Dissertation Award 2020

    Pranavi Koppula (Advisor, Boyi Gan, PhD)
    Steve Lasher and Janice Longoria Graduate Student Research Award in Cancer Biology, 2019

    Danielle Little (Advisor, Jichao Chen, PhD)
    NIH F31 Fellowship, 2017-2020
    GSBS Presidents' Research Scholarship, 2020
    Gigli Family Endowed Scholarship, 2019-2020

    Lorena Maili (Advisor, Jacqueline Hecht, PhD)
    NIH F31 Fellowship, 2019-2021
    Linda M. Wells GSBS Outreach Award, 2019

    Roxsan Manshouri (Advisor, Don Gibbons, MD,PhD)
    NIH F31 Fellowship, 2018-2023
    Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellowship, 2019

    Rhiannon Morrissey (Advisor, Gigi Lozano, PhD)
    NIH F31 Fellowship, 2020-2023
    American Legion Auxiliary Fellowship in Cancer Research, 2020

    Sidney Moyer (Advisor, Gigi Lozano, PhD)
    American Legion Auxiliary Fellowship in Cancer Research, 2019-2020 renewal
    Dr. John J. Kopchick Fellowship, 2019, 2020

    Odemaris Narvaez del Pilar (Advisor, Jichao Chen, PhD)
    NIH F31 Fellowship, 2019-2022
    Tzu Chi Scholarship Award for Excellence, 2019

    Ruoyu Wang (Advisor, Wenbo Li, PhD)
    Johnn and Rebekah Harper Fellowship in Biomedical Sciences, 2021-2022

    Hanghui Ye (Advisor, Nicholas Navin, PhD)
    Sowell-Huggins Fellowship in Cancer Research, 2021-2022

    2021 G&E Student Service Award Recipients

    Amelie Albrecht
    Jace Aloway
    Melissa Frasca
    Jovanka Gencel Augusto

    Celine Kong
    Anna Miao

    Rhiannon Morrissey
    Mabel Perez Oquendo

    Raisa Reyes Castro

Communications

  • Newsletters

    G&E 2021

    Newsletter Coming!

    G&E Newsletter 2020 Thumbnail

    G&E 2020 Newsletter

    GE newsletter cover image file 2019

    G&E 2019 Newsletter

  • Social Media
  • G&E News Updates

    Latest G&E Students to Win GSBS Fellowships and Scholarships! 

    Ruoyu Wang (Advisor, Dr. Wenbo Li, PhD): John and Rebekah Harper Fellowship in Biomedical Sciences, 2021-2022
    Vahid Bahrambeigi (Advisor, Anirban Maitra, MBBS): Rosalie B. Hite Fellowship, 2021-2022
    Hanghui Ye (Advisor, Nicholas Navin, PhD); Sowell-Huggins Fellowship in Cancer Research, 2021-2022
    Jovanka Gencel Augusto (Advisor, Gigi Lozano, PhD): Rosalie B. Hite Fellowship Renewal, 2021-2022
    Safia Essien (Advisor, George Eisenhoffer, PhD): American Legion Auxiliary Fellowship in Cancer Research 2nd year reappointment, 2021-2022

    See list of G&E student award recipients in 'Awards' section.

    G&E Director Wins McGovern Teaching Award

    Dr. Jichao Chen, G&E Director and Associate Professor of Pulmonary Medicine-Research at MD Anderson wins 2021 McGovern Award for Outstanding Teaching. This award recognizes excellence in teaching based on the educator’s knowledge of the subject, interest in/enthusiasm for teaching, interest in and understanding of students, responsiveness to student questions and encouragement of independent thinking, and accessibility to students. Each year, GSBS students nominate and vote for the winner. 

    New G&E Library

    Coming in August! G&E will have a new lending library located in Elisabeth Lindheim’s office at GSBS. More than 40 books will be available for check-out. From biology textbooks, scientific resources and biographies, to R programming, writing guides, and personal productivity, you'll find a huge breadth of topics of interest to our graduate program community. See book list here.  

DNA Fingerprinting for G&E Contact Us

Contact Us

Jichao Chen, PhD
G&E Program Director
Associate Professor, Department of Pulmonary Medicine - Research
MD Anderson Cancer Center
Office: Zayed Z9.5052 
Email: jchen16@mdanderson.org | Tel: 713-745-0630

Francesca Cole, PhD
G&E Program Co-Director
Associate Professor, Department of Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis
MD Anderson Cancer Center, Smithville Campus (until August 2021)
Office: Lab IV (SRD1.108)
Email: fcole@mdanderson.org | Tel: (512) 237-9464

Elisabeth Lindheim
G&E Program Coordinator
Office: GSBS Deans Office, BSRB S3.8328 
Email: elindheim@mdanderson.org | Tel: 713-745-0682

Rebecca Deen
G&E Smithville Coordinator
Office: Laboratory Building IV - SRD1.142
Email: rdeen
@mdanderson.org | Tel: 512-237-9570