Shedding Light on the Genome’s Dark Matter and its Role in Cancer

World Cancer Day is a time to raise awareness about this disease, the importance of early diagnostics, and the ways we can fight it. Cancer accounts for more than a quarter of all deaths in developed countries. Although there are many types, all cancers begin as unregulated cell proliferation, resulting in damage to the function of normal cells and organs. For many years, therapeutic regimens have been based on aggressive radiation and chemotherapies. These treatments take advantage of the high proliferation rate of the cancer cells, but they may also lead to significant side-effects by also damaging normal cells. In addition, cancer cells may develop resistance to these treatments. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop new therapeutic approaches. During cancer development, the genetic data encoded by the DNA changes, resulting in disease that is unique for each patient.

Today, researchers and physicians believe that treatment needs to be based on the specific genetic data of each patient, and tailor-made for their unique disease.

Despite huge efforts to understand cancer genetics, we currently understand the role of only two percent of the human genome, while the remainder is still elusive. In our lab at the Technion, we use computational and genetic tools to illuminate the role of the less-well-understood 98% of the genome, and study how it can be used to improve treatment and diagnosis aiming to eliminate cancer. Using the CRISPR-based gene editing approach, we systematically change the genetic code of thousands of regions in the human genome, and study the effects of this changes on cancer development and resistance to therapies. Importantly, during these studies we not only find new ways to fight cancer, but we are also shedding light on the secrets of the most interesting molecule in the universe, the genome, and its complexity.  

Dr. Assaf Bester is an Assistant Professor at the faculty of biology at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, where he heads a lab studying cancer genetics and gene regulation. He was Fulbright Postdoc fellow at Harvard in 2014, where he, and his colleagues, developed a new gene-editing approach to study the non-coding genome and its role in cancer. These discoveries allowed for studying parts of the genome which were unreachable for the scientific community until recently, and by this, to better understand how the genome functions in healthy and disease cells. Based on these findings during his postdoc at Harvard, Assaf recently established his research lab at the Technion.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Assaf Bester.

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Fluorescent labeled proteins help us learn the complexity of gene regulation and the role of the non-coding genome in health and disease. Left, cancer cells under the microscope. Right, the same cells when illuminated to activate bioluminescence proteins engineered to report on the regulation of specific cellular activity. Photographed by Dr. Liran Ben-Yaakov, Bester lab.