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Scope 67: Harvard collaboration looking at genes that cause asthma

24 October 2018

Malaghan Institute PhD student Jodie Chandler recently returned from a research trip to Harvard Medical School in Boston where she spent six weeks working in the Benoist-Mathis Laboratory, tracing the origins of allergic diseases like asthma.

“I was working on a cutting-edge research technique called ATAC-seq (Assay for Transposase-Accessible Chromatin using sequencing),” says Jodie. “ATAC-seq can be used to figure out how transcription works by looking at which segments of DNA are unpacked at a given time – meaning which genes are available for transcription.”

For cells to express genes and carry out their function, DNA first needs to be unwrapped from its tightly-wound coil before being transcribed into strands of RNA. These strands are then translated into proteins, the building blocks that make cellular functions possible. Traditionally, researchers have focused on RNA to understand which genes are currently active in a cell. However, stepping back and looking at which segments of DNA are available for transcription and why helps give researchers like Jodie insight into their development in relation to disease.

“In the case of allergic diseases like eczema, we know that the production of the molecule IL-13 is associated with its development. We hope that by finding out how the transcription of genes that code for IL-13-producing cells are regulated, we might be able to trace it back to its precursor origins and hopefully stop eczema developing in the first place.”

While Jodie, whose PhD is supported by the Colin Williamson Charitable Trust, still has to sort through all the data generated during her time in Boston, she’s optimistic her team will be able to fill in many of the blanks associated with allergic disease – both here and internationally.

“This work connects us with the global network of leaders in asthma research” says Professor Graham Le Gros, team leader and supervisor for Jodie’s PhD. “Not only has Jodie’s time in Boston brought relevance to our work, it has also enabled us to keep contributing to the global effort for a cure.”