January 11, 2023 - Podcast

Episode 336 — The relation between DNA movement in cells and cancer

With cancer impacting millions of people around the world, it's important to be able to identify and treat its many forms. An IUPUI scientist is leading research that could ultimately lead to better diagnosis and treatment.

Jing Liu studies the movement of chromatin -- the mixture of DNA and proteins that forms the chromosomes in the cells of humans – and tracks its interaction with different functions of the human cell. The movement of chromatin is a fundamental and large unexplored aspect of cell biology.

Liu says the movement of chromatin specifically influences the interaction between DNA in cells and regulatory molecules, which impacts many fundamental cell functions, such as DNA replication and repair, transcription, the process of copying a segment of DNA into RNA, and gene expression.

Liu and colleagues have found that chromatin moves much faster when DNA is damaged compared to undamaged areas. DNA damage happens naturally in the human body and most of it can be repaired by the cell itself. The researchers found that  the chromatin movement is not random but rather a coherent form of movement, with DNA moving as a group over a short distance.

This finding suggests that chromatin movement may play a role in how DNA repairs itself — a process whose failure can result in cancer. Understanding the connection between chromatin movement and DNA repair could potentially yield improved cancer diagnosis and treatment, Liu says. For example, scientists might be able to test different drugs for their ability to modify chromatin motion in a way that strengthens DNA repair. 

According to Liu, it can be difficult to measure chromatin due to its extremely small size; chromatin motion is measured in tens of nanometers – a fraction of the width of human hair. He hopes to create an imaging system capable of capturing the movement of chromatin in three dimensions, as well as recording its activity down to the millisecond.

The researchers also hope to identify the causal link between chromatin motion and epigenetic modification (or regulating whether genes are turned on or off), transcription, and gene expression.

Liu says this research has the potential to transform our understanding of this disease mechanism and speed up the development of new drug therapies. The research will allow him to reach beyond the initial research goals of DNA repair and understand its role in more general intranuclear activities.