Sarah De Val described the method that her lab has used to study the development of veins. Transcriptional enhancers are DNA regions that can control whether a gene is turned on (transcribed) or off (not transcribed). By tracking the activity of enhancers that are known to be specific to veins, Sarah’s group has been able to discover much more about the transcriptional switches that determine what type of blood vessel (artery or vein) a new vessel becomes.
The central question in Colin Goding’s talk was what determines the switch between tumour growth and metastasis, the spreading of the original tumour into other parts of the body. To get tumour growth, a cancerous cell stays in its original location but divides uncontrollably whereas metastasis is caused by cancer cells becoming invasive and stopping proliferation. Colin’s lab’s research indicates that nutrient availability is a key regulator of this switch by influencing the level of the transcriptional regulator MITF.
Chunxiao Song described the sensitive technique that he has developed to aid in the early detection of cancer. This technique is non-invasive because it relies on testing circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) that is shed into the blood by tissues from all over the body. The cfDNA is chemically modified on cytosine bases by methylation and hydroxymethylation, and the levels of these modifications can be used as a signature for where in the body the cfDNA originated. Because cancer results in increased cfDNA, by measuring both cfDNA levels and the signature of chemical modifications on the cfDNA, Chunxiao’s technique can be used as a diagnostic assay for many different types of cancer.
Skirmantas Kriaucionis’ group also studies the chemical modification of cytosine in DNA, in particular the relationship of DNA methylation and DNA hydroxymethylation with transcription. Whereas DNA methylation is mainly found at regulatory regions next to inactive genes, DNA hydroxymethylation is found on genes with high transcription. By artificially changing the level of DNA hydroxymethylation, Skirmantas’ research aims to understand how this modification functions to influence transcription.
The Oxford Transcription Meeting is co-organised by Colin Goding and Jane Mellor (Oxford Biochemistry) to showcase the wealth of research in this area and to promote collaborations between the labs in Oxford. It is hoped that the next meeting will take place in 2020.