Sylvester Attracts World’s Top Epigenetics Experts for Fifth Biennial Miami Epigenetics and Cancer Symposium

Top epigenetics researchers from around the world gathered in South Beach for the Fifth Biennial Miami Epigenetics and Cancer Symposium, hosted by Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Lluis Morey, Ph.D.; David Lombard, M.D., Ph.D.; Ramin Shiekhattar, Ph.D.; Maria “Ken” Figueroa, M.D.; Stephen D.
Nimer, M.D.; Justin Taylor, M.D.
(From left) Lluis Morey, Ph.D.; David Lombard, M.D., Ph.D.; Ramin Shiekhattar, Ph.D.; Maria “Ken” Figueroa, M.D.; Stephen D.
Nimer, M.D.; Justin Taylor, M.D.

Sylvester began hosting the meeting in 2014, when epigenetics researcher Ramin Shiekhattar, Ph.D., was recruited to work with Sylvester’s Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., to develop the cancer center’s focus on epigenetics. Genetics is the study of genetic changes that are not part of the DNA code and how those changes impact cancer.

“Since 2014, we have made great progress in growing Sylvester’s epigenetics program,” said Dr. Nimer, who is the meeting’s co-organizer along with Dr. Shiekhattar. “Today, we host a global meeting in epigenetics — one of cancer’s most exciting specialties — as a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and one of the nation’s top 50 cancer hospitals in U.S. News & World Report‘s Best Hospitals rankings.”

Highlighting Innovations

Sylvester’s symposium stands out globally as a meeting that highlights innovations in basic science as well as clinical epigenetics, according to Dr. Shiekhattar, co-leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Research Program, chief of the Division of Cancer Genomics and Epigenetics, and professor in the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics at the Miller School.

Ramin Shiekhattar, Ph.D. speaking at a podium.
Ramin Shiekhattar, Ph.D.

“Most epigenetics meetings are either clinically oriented or focus on the basic science of our specialty,” Dr. Shiekhattar said. “Our goal of this meeting was to feature an amalgam of these different disciplines. As a result, the symposium is a great place to have interesting conversations about potential new cancer therapies.”

Sylvester is at the forefront of epigenetics research and showcased its progressive work at the meeting, with senior faculty and junior and mid-level researchers presenting.

David Lombard, M.D., Ph.D., co-leader of Sylvester’s Cancer Epigenetics Program, chaired the “Epigenetics in Development and Disease” session, which featured a panel of experts including Sylvester’s Luisa Cimmino, Ph.D., and researchers from Peter MacCallum Cancer Center in Victoria, Australia; Memorial Sloan Kettering; and Stanford University.

Stephen D. Nimer, M.D. speaking at the conference.
Stephen D. Nimer, M.D.

Dr. Lombard also presented on a line of research that is a focus of his laboratory, “Functions of the SIRT5 deacylase in benign and malignant cells.”

“SIRT5 modulates epigenetic marks and does other things in the cell, such as affecting metabolism of both normal physiology and cancer. We think SIRT5 is an exciting protein, and we are working to develop inhibitors of it specifically for cancer therapy,” Dr. Lombard said. “Sharing this work at the Miami Epigenetics and Cancer Symposium is important because it exposes the research to an audience of leaders who are doing groundbreaking work in the field.”

Many other experts from the world’s top cancer centers presented, including Emily Bernstein, Ph.D., professor of oncology sciences and dermatology and co-leader of the Cancer Mechanisms Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Dr. Bernstein and her colleagues shared their work on a melanoma phenotype in macroH2A-deficient animals; they associate this histone variant with the non-immune tumor stroma, an area of increasing relevance to cancer biology. Tumor stroma includes a tumor’s non-cancer cell and non-immune cell components that make up the structural components holding tumor tissue together.

Emily Bernstein, Ph.D.
Emily Bernstein, Ph.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

In previous work, Dr. Bernstein reported that macroH2A suppresses tumor progression of malignant melanoma, while loss of macroH2A is associated with increasing melanoma cells. The new research looks at further defining macroH2A’s role in the deadly skin cancer.

“We believe that deciphering the role of macroH2A in suppressing transcriptional and cellular plasticity in the tumor microenvironment will allow us to understand how its depletion contributes to human melanoma,” Dr. Bernstein said.

New Discoveries and Technology

The meeting has hit its stride in the specialty at a time when epigenetics is coming to the forefront of cancer research.

“There are a lot of major new discoveries being made routinely in epigenetics, and some of that is driven by new technology,” Dr. Shiekhattar said. “Today, we can profile different epigenetic changes in whole genomes and even at the single cell level. Some of that excitement is driven by the availability of small molecules that can alter these modifications, which may ultimately provide new therapeutics.”

Epigenetic drugs are important tools because cancer is an epigenetic disease, Dr. Shiekhattar explained. The epigenome becomes altered during the genesis, progression, and metastasis of all cancer types, so understanding the vulnerabilities in the epigenome is key for developing targeted therapies, he said.

“This is the kind of a meeting that brings out the best scientists who are working on epigenetic mechanisms therapeutic approaches, so we can have those important discussions and share global findings,” Dr. Shiekhattar said.

Tags: cancer epigenetics, Cancer Epigenetics Research Program, Division of Cancer Genomics and Epigenetics, Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics, Dr. Ramin Shiekhattar, Dr. Stephen Nimer, Miami Epigenetics and Cancer Symposium, Miller School of Medicine, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center