Inaugural Elaine Redding Brinster Prize Awarded to Scientist Who Sparked Growth of Epigenetics

The Institute for Regenerative Medicine the University of Pennsylvania has awarded C. David Allis, PhD, an American molecular biologist, with the inaugural Elaine Redding Brinster Prize in Science or Medicine. Allis’ research helped spark the field of epigenetics, which is the study of how a person’s behavior and environment can change the way their genes operate. Epigenetics now yield useful insights on everything from what may cause seizures to how bodies age and the way chronic diseases develop and progress.

“We are thrilled to award this honor for the first time to Dr. Allis, whose foundational biochemical discoveries have impacted so many aspects of biology and medicine,” said Ken Zaret, PhD, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the Joseph Leidy Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. “It’s a timely way to highlight the importance of science to society.”

The prize, supported by an endowment from the children of Elaine Redding Brinster, will be awarded annually to a researcher whose singular discovery has made a unique impact on biomedicine. Each winner will receive $100,000, a commemorative medal, and an invitation to present a ceremonial lecture to the University of Pennsylvania campus community.

Allis will accept the prize March 16, 2022, as part of the daylong Ralph L. Brinster Symposium.

Read more in Penn Medicine News.

Penn Medicine Awarded $6 Million to Advance Understanding of Human Genome Function in Health and Disease

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has selected Penn Medicine as one of 25 award recipients across 30 sites in the United States to serve as Impact of Genomic Variation on Function (IGVF) investigators, with the goal of better understanding how genetic differences impact how human genes function, and how these variations influence human health and disease. Funded by the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Penn Medicine will be awarded more than $1.2 million per year, with a contract that is expected to be supported for five years, totaling more than $6 million in funding for this research.

While genome sequences among people are more than 99.9 percent identical, it’s the 0.1 percent of differences, alternate orders of the As, Cs, Gs and Ts that make up DNA, combined with environment and lifestyle, that shape a person’s overall physical features and disease risk. Researchers have identified millions of human genomic variants that differ across the world, including thousands associated with disease. With results from this new research and advanced computer modeling, Penn and other IGVF consortium investigators aim to identify which variants in the genome are relevant for health and disease, with major implications for physicians and their patients.

“A fundamental question in biology is to understand how genetic variation affects genome function to influence human health and diseases,” said Hao Wu, PhD, an assistant professor of Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who will serve as the Penn site’s principal investigator. “With the IGVF award, we can leverage the brain power of Penn’s experts in human genetics, single cell sequencing and functional genomics to decode how genetic variants may contribute to how genes are regulated, how cells function, and ultimately, human diseases. This is a terrific opportunity for collaboration with researchers across departments and institutions.”

Read more about Penn’s IGVF award in Penn Medicine News.

Putting a spotlight on microscopy outreach

Scientists use microscopes to see things that are normally hidden. But how can these tools be used to show people the world of science and discovery?

Recently, Development featured the voices of 5 science educators who use microscopes to “reveal new worlds,” “improve our communication and understanding of developmental biology,” and “break down barriers and promote diversity for future generations of scientific researchers.” Among these voices was the IRM’s Jamie Shuda, a veteran of science outreach and education. As a founder of Project BioEYES, Dr. Shuda knows how hands-on experience looking at the little things can draw new people to STEM careers.

“With over 85% of our student population being from communities of color and qualifying for free and reduced lunch, providing simple scientific equipment, like dissecting or stereomicroscopes, along with grade-appropriate curricula and personnel support helps fill in the science educational gaps that inhibit many of these students from seeing themselves as capable of a career in the science field.”

You can read more about Jamie and her colleagues experiences in the Development spotlight.

 

Distinct first responder cells lead the skin’s wound healing response

Under normal conditions, a menagerie of separate cell populations work to maintain skin health. However, injury prompts these isolated pools of cells to exit their individual niches and re-epithelialize the epidermis (the surface skin layer). This raises important questions about which cells react first and how the body primes them for rapid injury response.

A study by the Rompolas lab published this week in Cell Stem Cell provides a closer look at how mice maintain these pools of cells and how the cells respond after injury. Led by postdoctoral researcher Sixia Huang, the team used live cell imaging to confirm that that cells expressing Lgr6 serve as first responders that proliferate and initiate epithelial repair following injury. Moreover, the researchers show that targeted destruction of Lgr6+ cells slows the injury response by requiring other stem cells to respond.

So what makes Lgr6+ cells step up first? Consistent with previous data showing that Lgr6 expression by keratinocytes depends on skin innervation, the researchers find that sensory nerves contact the pool of Lgr6+ stem cells and are required for normal cellular dynamics post-injury. This nerve interaction regulates Lgr6+ cell identity and fate by regulating the expression of other genes within the cells, something that is drastically altered if nerves are lost.

Altogether, these results shed light on how the nervous system crosstalks with stem cells in the body. Rather than simply serve as pain receptors, cutaneous nerves prime Lgr6+ cells to function as first responders to injury. These observations may shed light on why patients suffering medical conditions associated with neuropathies, like diabetes, may also suffer from diminished wound healing.

Photo courtesy of Sixia Huang