Advancing the science of protein modifications

Already seen as pioneers in their field, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry researcher Shawn Li, PhD, and postdoctoral fellow Kyle Biggar, PhD, are now helping to define the field as well.

Li and Biggar were recently published in the prestigious journal, Nature Reviews, for a comprehensive review of the role that non-histone protein methylation plays in a variety of disease and biological processes. Protein methylation refers to a small chemical modification to a protein that can change its function.

“We came to the realization that this has become a really important protein modification that is involved in all cellular biology and disease progression as well,” said Li. “This is a very significant area of biomedical science that we need to invest more time and resources in and it has the potential to lead to novel strategies of disease diagnosis and treatment, particularly with cancer.”

Li’s lab was one of the first in the world to look at the role that non-histone protein methylation plays in cancer with a particular focus on its contribution to drug-resistance. Since their initial findings, they have watched the field grow exponentially over the last four or five years

Currently, several drugs that target protein methylation are currently under clinical trials and are very promising newcomers in the field of drug discovery. One of the things that Li is doing in his lab is developing inhibitors for methylation for the treatment of breast cancer.

“Looking at the methylation modification to protein has been a field that has lagged behind well-known things such as phosphorylation of a protein, and that’s really been a result of the technologies not being advanced enough to be able to study it,” said Biggar. “So now that technology is advancing to the point that we can look at and study protein methylation, the field is exploding and our lab here is at the forefront of helping to define that field with this paper.”

The review paper demonstrates the wide-reaching role that methylation plays in a variety of cellular functions such as chromatin remodeling, gene transcription, protein syntheses, signal transduction and DNA repair.  They acknowledge that the field has only just begun to delineate the full spectrum of cellular, developmental and pathological processes that it can regulate and anticipate that the field will continue to expand rapidly over the next decade.