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CPRIT grant brings epigenetics researcher to Rice

Isaac Hilton will join Department of Bioengineering in January

By Mike Williams
Rice News Staff

Bioengineer Isaac Hilton will join Rice University as an assistant professor with the support of a $2 million recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Hilton, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University, will set up shop at Rice's BioScience Research Collaborative in January 2018. His lab will be designed to tie his groundbreaking research on epigenome editing to cancer biology.

As a member of the Duke lab of biomedical engineer Charles Gersbach, he was first author of a 2015 Nature Biotechnology paper that introduced a method based on the increasingly popular genome editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9. Hilton's innovation enables editing of epigenetics, the non-DNA-sequence regulatory mechanisms in a cell that aid in controlling gene expression.

Isaac Hilton_web  
Isaac Hilton 

The new method provided direct evidence that the acetylation of chromatin is causally linked to gene activation and allowed Hilton and colleagues to synthetically increase gene expression at targeted regulatory regions of the human genome. "We can deactivate Cas9 so that it no longer cuts but can still target DNA; we call that dCas9," Hilton said. "We use dCas9 as a platform to deliver different enzymatic effector domains and thereby precisely control gene regulation and chromatin structure at specified genomic locations.

"My goals include applying this technology to dissect the relationships between epigenetic signatures and the onset and progression of human cancer and to produce methods to better combat cancer from an epigenetic standpoint," he said.

A follow-up paper last month in the same journal, on which Hilton was a co-author, described using the method for high-throughput screening for functional regulatory elements in the human genome.

"I'm interested in understanding the basic mechanisms that control how genes are normally and aberrantly expressed in healthy and diseased human cells, respectively, and ultimately how we can synthetically engineer these mechanisms to therapeutically address human diseases," Hilton said. "There's still so much we don't know about the epigenetic control of gene expression in healthy human cells, and that lack of understanding is often amplified in the context of disease-specific gene expression patterns."

The Missouri native said he was drawn to Rice by its renowned academic and scientific reputation as well as the talented people he met while interviewing. "Everyone I met with was producing cutting-edge science, and it was clear to me that the innovative and cohesive atmosphere within the Bioengineering Department would enable research successes and fruitful collaborations. It was a really easy choice," he said.

He also noted how impressed he has been by a 2016 Rice alumna, Veronica Gough, who worked with Rice bioengineer Junghae Suh before joining the Gersbach Lab as a graduate student. "She's a spectacular young scientist," Hilton said. "It's obvious that she was trained very well as an undergraduate.

"At Rice, everyone placed a lot of emphasis on training, and I've always believed in the importance of that, not only for graduate students and postdocs, but also at the undergraduate level," Hilton said. "I’m very excited to join the faculty at Rice. The academic culture and world-class research environment will allow me to contribute to training the next generation of scientists and engineers while also making scientific discoveries throughout my career."

Hilton earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences at the University of Missouri and a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The grant was one of 10 announced last week by CPRIT, another of which will bring mechanical engineer and bone-modeling expert B.J. Fregly to Rice. CPRIT was approved by state taxpayers in a 2007 ballot initiative to provide $3 billion to support cancer research statewide. To date, the agency has awarded $1.8 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations through its academic research, prevention and product development research programs.