Big Data digging yields unprecedented road map of the epigenome

A massive data generation and analysis program has uncovered a map of the epigenome, the switches that turn genes off and on. Researchers published their findings in a series of papers in Nature and released the data for further analysis through the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The road map marks a major move forward in our understanding of epigenomics, a field in which Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Merck ($MRK) are all spending R&D dollars. Progress has been slower than optimists expected, but Celgene ($CELG), Eisai and Merck all still picked up FDA approvals for epigenetic drugs in the 2000s. A second wave of drugs is now passing through clinical development, which could be followed by a new batch developed in light of the road map.

Researchers built the road map by looking at what happens when certain switches are activated in more than 100 cells. By tracking which regulators were affected by which switches, researchers were able to infer links between the epigenome and the genome. Scale was key to the undertaking. "Before, we did not have enough data to (show which regulator controls which switch,)" Broad Institute Director Eric Lander told The New York Times.

The road map is a step toward clarity in a field so complex it prompted a researcher to comment that seemingly "everything does everything to everything." That line is from 2001 and since then the leaps forward in our ability to generate and analyze data have improved the situation, starting with the 16 annotated epigenomes generated by the ENCODE project and continuing with the 111 released this week.

"Hopefully (they) will serve as a very good guide for epigenome studies in the future," the University of Copenhagen's Kristian Helin told The Scientist.

- read the NYT article
- here's The Scientist's piece
- check out the LA Times' take
- and the NIH's release

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