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NIH awards $4.4 million to UCI Diabetes Center to study the epigenetic mechanisms for diabetes

Posted: 2023-11-01

Source: UCI School of Medicine
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Pictured left to right, Qin Yang MD, PhD, associate professor, Departments of Medicine and Physiology, UCI School of Medicine, director, UCI Diabetes Center and interim chief of endocrinology, UCI Health and Wei Li PhD, professor of bioinformatics in the Department of Biological Chemistry, UCI School of Medicine, are discussing the paper about 3’aQTL, an analytical tool developed by Wei Li’s lab. Using the 3’aQTL tool, Yang and Li labs are working together to identify novel diabetes risk genes as therapeutic targets.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes is the number one cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations and adult blindness. In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled, affecting more than 11% of the U.S. population. However, the underlying mechanisms, especially at the molecular levels, for the development of diabetes are not fully understood.

Qin Yang, MD, PhD, endocrinologist, director of the UCI Diabetes Center and associate professor in the Departments of Medicine, and Physiology & Biophysics, at the UCI School of Medicine, has received two NIH awards totaling $4.4 million to study the epigenetic mechanisms for diabetes. Wei Li, PhD, professor of bioinformatics in the Department of Biological Chemistry at the UCI School of Medicine, is the co-principal investigator on both awards.

“Understanding the molecular mechanisms for diabetes is critically important for developing novel therapeutic strategies to prevent and treat diabetes,” said Yang. “In diabetes, hundreds to thousands of genes are altered in the metabolic organs such as the liver and pancreas-islets, but how these genes are coordinately regulated is not fully understood. In addition, it is well known that obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, but not all obese patients develop diabetes. The molecular mechanisms for why some, but not other obese people, become diabetic is not clear.”

Yang, a clinical endocrinologist and established diabetes researcher, and Li, a renowned bioinformatics expert, decided to form an interdisciplinary team to address these unanswered scientific questions from the aspects of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is an emerging area of research that studies how cells control gene activity without changing the DNA sequence. Although epigenetics has been extensively studied in the cancer field, much less is known in diabetes research.

“By leveraging our expertise in bioinformatics, we have been working with Dr. Yang’s laboratory to analyze how epigenetic modifications such as histone methylation and acetylation coordinately regulate a large number of genes in diabetes,” said Li. “We have also been using a unique tool called 3’aQTL that is developed in my laboratory to identify epigenetic risk genes for diabetes development in obesity, and the candidate genes are tested in Dr. Yang’s laboratory for their causal roles in diabetes.”

Both projects received seed funding support from the UCI Diabetes Center. The seed fund program is supported by the fundraising activities organized by the UCI Diabetes Council.

“I am honored and privileged to support the UCI Diabetes Center,” said Michael J. Stamos, MD, dean of the UCI School of Medicine. “Dr. Yang and Dr. Li’s successful competition for NIH grants to address the major scientific knowledge gap and unmet needs for diabetes is exactly the purpose of the seed funds.”