GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences has been awarded a five-year, $10 million grant to expand the school’s epigenetics research program.

The National Institutes of Health grant, which will be delivered to UND in $2 million increments, builds on a similar grant the School received in 2013 that was directed toward scholars exploring the epigenetics and epigenomics of disease, the school reported in a press release.

Researchers studying epigenetics explore the mechanisms that regulate gene expression and the activation and deactivation of specific genes. Understanding better how the human body can turn genes on and off during growth and aging and in response to its environment has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and diabetes.

“If we can understand what these processes are, then it can give us more insight into how these diseases can happen and how we could intervene to try to ameliorate those things or maybe stop them from being passed on from generation to generation,” Dr. Roxanne Vaughan, principal investigator of the CoBRE grant and Chester Fritz Distinguished professor at the SMHS, said.

A working group was formed at UND to further investigate the topic in 2013. Since then, the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence has helped five researchers at UND establish projects so they could compete for larger grants.

These researchers have already published 61 papers and received about $5.5 million in additional funding from the NIH, the National Science Foundation and private foundations. The grant also helped establish a Genomics Core, which has been used by researchers from 32 individual labs, with more than 5,000 genetic samples processed for genome-wide analyses.

“This major award allows us to continue to build upon the strong faculty group in epigenetics that we have developed with the first CoBRE,” Dr. Marc Basson, senior associate dean for medicine and research at the SMHS, said in a statement. “It will likely also be synergistic with our Dakota Cancer Collaborative on Translational Activity program since epigenetics plays a prominent role in cancer as well as other major diseases. I congratulate Dr. Vaughan and her team and look forward to their continued progress.”