Briah Strahl and a lab assistant count and examine cell cultures in his lab. (Photo by Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina)
‘Team science is the best science’
Breakthroughs in epigenetics require teams with specialized skills, and the Chemical Epigenomics Hub brings necessary talents together from across campus. These include experts in epigenomics, model organisms, genomics, proteomics, chemistry and chemical biology.
The hub’s multidisciplinary foundation provides opportunities for Strahl and Pattenden to collaborate with researchers from the Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery and more than 12 epigenetics laboratories, including labs from the medical and pharmacy schools, the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the College of Arts and Sciences. And hub members don’t just hail from Chapel Hill. The team includes researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Alabama as well.
“Different disciplines have different toolkits for addressing questions and problems in cellular and genomic research,” says J. Christopher Clemens, senior associate dean for research and innovation at the College of Arts & Sciences. “The amazing thing for me about this project has been watching how the team’s combined toolkit has worked in harmony to enlarge the scope of the questions that can be addressed. Just as you can improve carpentry with a hammer, a saw and a plane, team science can accomplish more than any one individual alone.”
Clemens, who is also the Jaroslav Folda Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, works to provide innovation frameworks that will help guide teams of researchers through the process of translating basic research into innovations with commercial or social impact.
The innovative work of the Chemical Epigenomics Hub kicked off with a 2019 award from the Creativity Hubs award program, which is managed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. The Creativity Hubs are virtual research networks that convene research talent and resources into diverse, interdisciplinary faculty teams that pursue answers to complex problems.
Strahl’s and Pattenden’s epigenetic hub is also receiving support from the Institute for Convergent Science, which is operating in a pilot phase in the Genome Sciences Building through a partnership between the College of Arts & Sciences, UNC Research, Innovate Carolina and other campus units. ICS provides wet lab and startup accelerator space, funding, talent connections, and other resources designed to help faculty take a problem-centered, team-based approach to research that launches new treatments, products and devices into the world.
“Team science is the best science. It allows us to do projects we never thought possible,” says Pattenden. “Our team offers a one-of-a-kind constellation of strengths in epigenetics, model organism research, computational biology, medicinal chemistry and drug discovery.”
“The research we’re doing could potentially lead to new patents and approaches, but also lead to new science and new ideas,” says Strahl. “From a conceptual standpoint, we’re making new advances that could take us in directions we hadn’t yet realized would be important.”
A future epigenomics center
With the work of the Chemical Epigenomics Hub, Strahl and Pattenden hope to eventually create a world-renowned Chemical Epigenomics Center at Carolina that offers a synergistic environment where University faculty can come together to tackle the most challenging foundational and translational problems in the field.
“I’m hoping we see results that can take us into a new area, which ultimately could secure new grants,” says Strahl. “One of the main goals of the hub is that through our creativity and the work, we can standardize how we bring new grants to the table that weren’t there previously or wouldn’t have come otherwise.”
The future center would address challenges in epigenetics, expand the range of new drug targets and discovery efforts, spur new innovation and intellectual property, and aid in the creation of new chemical tools. Such goals are ambitious, and Pattenden sees the hub’s collaborative approach to research and innovation as key to also making them attainable.
“Being at UNC has given me a new perspective on how to do science,” says Pattenden. “Team science doesn’t diminish an individual’s contributions. The things I could do would be so small if I wasn’t able to collaborate with people outside my own field.”
Learn more about Innovate Carolina