$2.375 million federal award to study epigenetic control systems, inform drug discovery

GRAND RAPIDS, MI (Sept. 20, 2017)—Van Andel Research Institute scientist Scott Rothbart, Ph.D., has been awarded a five-year, $2.375 million Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA/R35) from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health that will fuel in-depth, multidisciplinary studies into the epigenetic control mechanisms that regulate the genetic code.

“Epigenetic mechanisms are at the root of biology and are implicated in all aspects of health and disease throughout a person’s life,” Rothbart said. “Thanks to this award, we can focus on the big picture—how are these incredibly complex and nuanced controls orchestrated and how can we leverage this knowledge to rationally design more effective medications that ultimately improve human health?”

Dr. Scott Rothbart

The grant provides “the nation’s highly talented and promising investigators” with “greater stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing the scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs,” according to NIGMS.

A molecule of particular interest to the lab is the protein UHRF1, which serves as a central hub for epigenetic regulation. Although previous work by Rothbart and others in the field has started defining its function, little is known about how UHRF1 does its job. Rothbart aims to change that, and to translate the results into tangible improvements in patient care.

“Understanding what goes on behind the scenes through basic scientific discovery is the starting point for a potential wave of new epigenetic therapies,” he said. “The more information we have, the more opportunities exist to harness this knowledge in a real, impactful way.”

The implications go far beyond understanding UHRF1 itself, and may serve as a paradigm for studying other crucial regulatory and molecular communication systems. His efforts will be bolstered by VARI’s recently installed suite of cryo-electron microscopes, which can visualize molecules such as proteins down to the atomic level.

Rothbart joined VARI in 2015 as assistant professor in its Center for Epigenetics following a postdoctoral fellowship at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While there, he was awarded a Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) grant from the National Institutes of Health, a competitive program designed to support promising early career scientists as they launch their own independent research programs.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number R35GM124736. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent nonprofit biomedical research and science education organization committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations. Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, VAI has grown into a premier research and educational institution that supports the work of more than 360 scientists, educators and staff. Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research division, is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translating those findings into effective therapies. The Institute’s scientists work in onsite laboratories and participate in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Learn more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting www.vai.org. 100% To Research, Discovery & Hope®