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Chronic kidney disease may be caused by epigenetic changes

The research of physician-scientist Katalin Susztak, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine in the Renal Electrolyte and Hypertension Division, at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, strives to understand the molecular roots and genetic predisposition of chronic kidney disease.

In a recent Genome Biology paper, Susztak, and her co-corresponding author John Greally from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, found, in a genome-wide survey, significant differences in the pattern of chemical modifications on DNA that affect gene expression in kidney cells from patients with chronic kidney disease versus healthy controls. This is the first study to show that changes in these modifications - the cornerstone of the field of epigenetics - might explain chronic kidney disease.

Epigenetics is the science of how gene activity can be altered without actual changes in the DNA sequence. DNA can be modified by different chemical groups. In the case of this study, these are methyl groups that, like using sticky notes as reminders, open or close up regions of the genome to make these areas more or less available to be "read" as a gene.

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