The Medical Epigenomics Laboratory studies the role of the epigenome in cancer, which provides a new perspective for understanding how cancer develops and how it can be diagnosed and treated. We combine both wet-lab and computational methods in order to explore opportunities for epigenetic combination therapies against cancer.
The epigenome strikes a balance between the relatively static genome and highly volatile gene expression patterns, making it an important mechanism by which cell states are controlled during embryonic development and cellular differentiation. Given that cancer can be seen as a disease of messed-up cell states, it is not surprising that epigenetic mechanisms feature prominently in cancer development. We study the underlying epigenome dynamics in the lab and in clinical patient samples.
The lab’s long-term goal is to improve cancer therapy through interdisciplinary research at the interface of high-throughput biology, bioinformatics and biomedicine, and we work closely with clinical researchers at the Medical University of Vienna. In particular, we study the role of the epigenome in leukemia, and develop methods for rational design of epigenetic cancer therapies.
We develop experimental and computational methods to gain a unique perspective. For example, we combine next generation sequencing with biochemical tricks that help us map various types of epigenetic modifications, and develop bioinformatic algorithms for inferring relevant cancer biology from such high-throughput data.
The following two projects are examples of research currently being carried out by the Bock group.
Modeling epigenome dynamics in leukemia and in the hematopoietic system
The epigenetic alterations that are frequently observed in hematopoietic malignancies emerge from a complex interplay between cell-type specific variation, genetically determined variation, and disease-specific variation. High-throughput and computational methods are needed to disentangle these complex networks and to predict which mechanisms provide promising drug targets.
The lab uses the hematopoietic system and the development of leukemia as a model for dissecting the interplay of genetic, epigenetic and transcriptional mechanisms in the course of cellular differentiation and in leukemia. This work will give rise to a dynamic and potentially predictive computational model of the deregulation of cell states when cells become malignant.
Development of epigenetic biomarkers for cancer diagnostics and personalized therapy
All cancers exhibit widespread epigenetic alterations, and epigenetic regulator proteins are frequently mutated in a broad range of tumor types. Because epigenetic defects tend to occur early during carcinogenesis and correlate with important clinical phenotypes, they are promising targets for biomarker development.
The lab has established an epigenetic biomarker platform for systematically deriving, prioritizing and validating DNA methylation biomarkers in cancer. This work is performed in the context of the European BLUEPRINT project and the International Human Epigenome Consortium, and it provides a framework for collaborating with clinical researchers aiming to characterize the genomes, epigenomes and/or transcriptomes in large patient cohorts.
Next Generation Sequencing and Whole Genome Medicine
The Biomedical Sequencing Facility (BSF) is Austria’s first technology platform dedicated to next generation sequencing in biomedicine and is thus expected to play a catalyzing role in the country’s development of genomic medicine.
The BSF not only operates next generation sequencing for Vienna’s medical campus (and beyond), but it also provides technological expertise and bioinformatic services for basic researchers and clinicians. Furthermore, it contributes to several flagship projects aimed at establishing proof-of-concept for genomic medicine in Austria.