For many decades, researchers have hunted for genetic mutations -- changes in the DNA sequence -- that contribute to or cause disease. But over the last 20 years, a handful of scientists have learned that epigenetics -- inherited cellular information other than the DNA sequence itself -- may play a role as important as genetics in some diseases. Cancer. Birth defects. Developmental disorders. Psychiatric problems.
Now, with a 5-year, $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the Center for the Epigenetics of Common Human Disease at Johns Hopkins are creating an environment in which epigenetics can become widely used in the hunt for causes of and contributors to disease in people. The goals of the center's director, Andrew Feinberg, are to develop "high-throughput" analysis of samples' epigenetic marks, to quantitatively link epigenetic characteristics with physical traits, and to "test drive" these new technologies by studying autism and bipolar disorder.