Coriell Scientists Awarded Grants to Study Cancer Epigenetics, Improve Therapies


The New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research has awarded two Coriell scientists a pair of grants to support research into the epigenetic underpinnings of cancer and how this knowledge can be used to improve treatments. These grants, each for $400,000, will support two research programs for two years.

One of the grants awarded by NJCCR will support research into understanding the biology of various breast cancers in different populations of women and the ways epigenetics may account for disparities in cancer risk and outcomes. This work will be led by Shoghag Panjarian, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Coriell and an expert in breast cancer epigenetics.

Dr. Panjarian’s work is focused on the proteins responsible for turning genes “on” or “off.” These proteins—writers and erasers—act on DNA through a process called methylation in which methyl tags are added to (writers) or removed from (erasers) certain genes. This methylation process is typically tightly controlled and diseases such as cancer can arise when the wrong genes are turned on or the appropriate genes are turned off.

This research will investigate one “eraser” protein that is found prominently in patients who tend to fare poorly with breast cancer. Dr. Panjarian and team will work to identify which genes are being targeted by this troublesome eraser protein and will then work to better treatments by either impeding the eraser or targeting the genes regulated by it.

Dr. Panjarian will also look into DNA’s repetitive elements, a large and still somewhat mysterious part of the genome containing pieces of genetic code that are repeated many times. While much is still to be learned about this part of the genome, it’s understood these parts of code are marked with methyl tags on healthy cells and lose their marks in cancerous cells. Furthermore, these repeated codes can be turned on in a particular pattern in different populations of breast cancer. Investigating these patterns and their association with survival outcomes, will help in understanding a patient’s risk for cancer and provide novel therapeutic opportunities.

“There’s a great deal we still need to learn about the many ways our genes and repetitive elements can contribute to biological differences in various breast cancer subtypes and in survival outcomes in different populations. The knowledge gained from this research, therefore, promises to provide new targets for powerful cancer treatments,” Dr. Panjarian said. “This award from NJCCR allows us to bolster our understanding of these mechanisms and improve the next generation of cancer therapies.”

The second research project supported by these grants will be led by Fatima Ruma, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Coriell.

In her work, Dr. Ruma will investigate three proteins—CDK7, CDK9, and bromodomain-containing protein 4 (BRD4)—that can throw the methylation process awry in healthy cells, leading to the incorrect genes being turned on or off and potentially giving rise to cancer.

“As we develop new therapies for cancer focused on epigenetics, it’s critical that we identify new targets for those therapies,” Dr. Ruma said. “My work supported by this grant will hopefully provide new targets.”

Inhibiting these proteins in the cell causes the cell to die, making them potential targets for anticancer treatments. However, it’s not known why cells in which these proteins are inhibited die. Her work promises a better understanding of these mechanisms which may lead to new therapies for cancer.

About the Coriell Institute for Medical Research

Founded in 1953, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving human health through biomedical research. Coriell scientists lead research in personalized medicine, cancer biology, epigenetics, and the genomics of opioid use disorder. Coriell also hosts one of the world's leading biobanks—comprised of collections for the National Institutes of Health, disease foundations and private clients—and distributes biological samples and offers research and biobanking services to scientists around the globe. To facilitate drug discovery and disease study, the Institute also develops and distributes collections of induced pluripotent stem cells. For more information, visit

Other News