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Nan Zhu, PhD

Understanding the genetics behind acute myeloid leukemia

Milwaukee – March 11, 2019

Learning more about normal blood formation will help Associate Investigator Nan Zhu, PhD, work toward better treatments for patients with AML.


According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, approximately every 3 minutes, one person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Leukemia and cancers of the blood form when genes within the human body mutate. Through sequencing of patient samples, researchers have identified mutations that cause the disease. Interestingly, some of the top highly mutated genes encode proteins called epigenetic regulators.

The human body has more than 200 different types of cells, all of which come from hematopoietic stem cells, the building blocks that give rise to other blood cells in the bone marrow. All of these cells have the same DNA; so, what is the underlying, driving force that causes one DNA footprint to create so many different types of cells? And what causes some of those cells to develop leukemia? The answer can be found in how genomic DNA is packaged. DNA packaging occurs when DNA wraps around proteins in the body called histones. These proteins play a role in cell formation, and they determine which cells become kidney cells, which become liver cells, etc.

Epigenetic regulators are proteins that regulate epigenetics, which refers to changes in cell phenotype without changing the underlying genomic DNA. Epigenetics underlines the mechanism through which the body can make more than 100 different cell types using just one blueprint: the human genome. Not only do epigenetic regulators play an important role in blood cancer formation, they are also being actively explored as therapeutic targets in blood cancer. Blood Research Institute Associate Investigator Nan Zhu, PhD, is working to understand the role of epigenetic regulators in blood cancer formation, and hopes to uncover potential therapeutic targets for better treatment of blood cancer.

These genes are mutating in otherwise healthy people who do not have blood disorders, which has encouraged researchers like Dr. Zhu to learn more about the genes’ behaviors. Though still in its infancy, precision medicine recognizes this, and researching epigenetic regulators will help Dr. Zhu and other investigators better understand AML and develop tailored treatment options for individual patients.

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Blood Research Institute investigator and Medical College of Wisconsin physician Karen Carlson is looking for better ways to treat patients with acute myeloid leukemia.

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