Gersbach Named Allen Distinguished Investigator

$1.5 million research award will help develop epigenetic tools to explore complex behaviors and diseases

Charles Gersbach, PhD, the Rooney Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, has been named an Allen Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

The award comes with $1.5 million over three years to conduct pioneering research in epigenetics.

While the various cell types in the body have the same DNA, they come in hundreds of different types and perform vastly different functions. Epigenetics describes the chemical and structural modification of that DNA that programs this diversity.

Imprecise epigenetic regulation, however, is the primary mechanism by which cells malfunction in diseases including autoimmune, metabolic and neurological disorders. It is also a big part of how cells respond to drugs and other environmental cues.

Gersbach and his colleagues at Duke have developed several tools based on the gene editing technology CRISPR for untangling this complex web of gene regulation. They have demonstrated the ability to control gene expression by writing epigenetic marks onto the genetic code and have used related techniques to control cell type determination by targeting “master switches” in the genome. More recently, they have developed high-throughput versions of these technologies to map the gene regulatory function of the “dark matter of the genome” that exists between genes.

With the new award, Gersbach and his colleagues plan to build on these proof-of-principle results to take their research to the next level.

Over the next three years, they will develop a robust toolkit that can edit epigenetic marks with precise spatial and temporal control. The overall goal is establish a technology to program any arbitrary epigenetic state that can then be applied to disease modeling, drug discovery and regenerative medicine. They will also manipulate the epigenome of neurons in live animals as a method to better understand the root causes of many complex behavioral functions and pathological states, such as drug response, addiction, learning and memory.

“My collaborators and I are very excited to develop these important technologies and apply them to the challenging task of understanding how epigenetics determines cell function and ultimately behavior,” said Gersbach. “We are also very appreciative of the Allen Frontiers Group for recognizing the potential of this ambitious research plan and providing their generous support.”

The Allen Distinguished Investigator program supports early-stage research with the potential to reinvent entire fields. Allen Distinguished Investigators are passionate thought leaders, explorers and innovators who seek world-changing breakthroughs. With grants typically between $1 million and $1.5 million each, the Frontiers Group provides these scientists with support to produce new directions in their respective fields.

“Each of these awards is given to researchers with the bold ideas and new perspectives we need to make the next big leap in bioscience,” says Tom Skalak, Ph.D., Executive Director of The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. “Epigenetics, aging and evolution are all fields with great impact on human health and wellbeing, but that currently face significant gaps in knowledge. With these awards, we hope to make strides toward the kind of breakthrough insights that can change the direction of an entire area of research.”