Towards an epigenetic treatment for cancer?

June 28th 2018

Epics Therapeutics, a new ULB spin-off founded by François Fuks and Jean Combalbert, has sttled in the Biopark. Its ambition: find new treatments for cancer. Its angle: epigenetics. A promising and cutting-edge field!

To understand epigenetics, it helps to see the cell as a book. Inside the book is DNA: a combination of words (genes), with each word using 4 different letters: A, T, G, and C(1). ‘But these words and letters are not all there is,’ explains François Fuks, professor of epigenetics at ULB and co-founder of spin-off Epics. ‘There are also commas, accent marks, and so on, which provide information on how words should be read. This “punctuation” is epigenetics.’
In all books, there can be typographical errors, for instance a misplaced hyphen. ‘Sometimes, these “errors” mean the word is not read properly; that is, the gene is not expressed well, or not expressed enough,’ continues Professor Fuks. And these errors—which we refer to in our jargon as DNA methylation—can potentially be carcinogenic.’

Using an ‘eraser’ to fix typos

From a diagnostic perspective, it can be very helpful to develop techniques to identify and read genes altered by epigenetics. For instance, such techniques can predict whether a cancer cell will respond to a given type of treatment. But epigenetics can also have actual therapeutic uses, as the processes involved are reversible! ‘Epigenetic cancer therapies seem especially promising,’ explains Professor Fuks. ‘Some are already functional. We have methylation inhibitors, which are like “erasers” that rub out any punctuation signs that are out of place. This means the gene can once again express normally.’

Playing in the big league

Epigenetics influence more than just DNA. It also has an effect on RNA, a molecule that is essential to life itself. Professor Fuks studies the epigenetics of RNA, and his laboratory at ULB is among the most prominent in the world in this field(2). This highly advanced area of research shows great potential. ‘We are attempting to identify existing “punctuation marks” and the key role that some of them play in the emergence and development of cancer. This is why we have launched our spin-off, Epics Therapeutics. Building on our academic discoveries—among other things—, we are developing new cancer therapies.’ The ambitious project has already attracted investors: with Professor Fuks’ research and CEO Jean Combalbert (formerly of Ogeda), Epics Therapeutics has managed to raise 7.2 million euros. Their medium-term objective is to discover inhibitors that can edit RNA.

(1) These are the 4 bases of DNA: adenine, thymine guanine and cytosine.
(2) Professor Fuks gives a specialised course in epigenomics for HeLSci.