Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

Maria Figueroa, M.D.

Maria Figueroa, M.D.

Associate Professor of Human Genetics

Description of Research

The Figueroa lab studies the role of epigenetic regulation during normal and malignant hematopoiesis, with a strong interest on translational research. Their focus is on how changes in normal DNA methylation, hydroxymethylation and histone modifications occur during malignant transformation and how these changes may contribute to the leukemogenic process. The lab uses a combination of genome-wide next-generation sequencing approaches, as well as, in vitro and in vivo modeling to determine the consequences of the epigenetic abnormalities that they have identified. The lab is currently pursuing the following projects:

The contribution of epigenetically silenced genes to leukemogenesis: The Figueroa lab has identified the existence of a core set of genes recurrently silenced through hypermethylation in all forms of primary human acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), irrespective of their classification subtype and the genetic lesions underlying the disease. They hypothesize that silencing of this core set of genes represents an early and necessary event in myeloid malignant transformation. Using a combination of functional genomic screens in vivo and in vitro, as well as, single-gene mechanistic approaches, the Figueroa lab is studying the contribution of each of these genes to normal and malignant hematopoiesis, as well as, their potential for therapeutic targeting.

Epigenetic deregulation in MDS: MDS are a heterogeneous group of clonal disorders characterized by ineffective hematopoiesis and increased risk of transformation to AML that occur in the elderly population. Despite molecular, morphological and clinical heterogeneity, MDS cases are uniformly characterized by aberrant DNA methylation profiles and the only proven therapy for these disorders are DNA methyltransferase inhibitors (DNMTi), which have proven effective in 30-40% of patients. However, little is known of how epigenetic deregulation contributes to MDS development and phenotype determination or why only a subset of these patients respond to epigenetic therapies. In the lab they are using primary human MDS specimens and studying them using genome-wide studies to identify candidate genes and pathways involved in determining disease progression and response to DNMTi, followed by functional testing in vitro and in vivo in murine models of candidate genes and pathways. Through their genome-wide approaches, the Figueroa lab has identified the chemokines CXCL4 and CXCL7, which are upregulated in DNMTi-resistant patients. Mechanistic studies of how these genes contribute to DNMTi resistance are currently underway in the lab.

The role of the aging epigenome in normal and malignant hematopoiesis: The frequency of myeloid malignancies increases significantly with every decade of age, and while rare in young adults and children, they are frequently observed in the elderly. Thus, it is likely that age-related changes in the form of genomic or epigenetic abnormalities may contribute to this increased susceptibility to MDS and AML in the elderly. The Figueroa lab hypothesizes that increasing disruption with age of normal epigenetic patterns in the hematopoietic system lay the foundation for the development of MDS and AML in elderly patients. They are studying DNA methylation, hydroxymethylation, chromatin modifications, and gene expression patterns in human hematopoietic cells during normal aging and comparing them to those observed in patients with MDS. The Figueroa lab seeks to (i) understand how the epigenome changes in the hematopoietic system as people age, and (ii) identify specific epigenetic abnormalities which are acquired during aging and which may play a pathogenic role in the development of MDS.

Please visit the Figueroa lab website for additional information:

Highlights

  • Specific epigenetic profiles characterize distinct subtypes of myeloid malignancies and these unique differences can be harnessed for molecular classification, outcome prediction and novel subtype discovery
  • Using this approach, the Figueroa lab discovered a novel Acute Myeloid Leukemia subtype associated with profound DNA hypermethylation, which is associated with the presence of mutations in the metabolic genes IDH1 and IDH2, and results in production of an oncometabolite capable of disruption of the TET-dependent DNA demethylation pathway
  • CMML sensitivity to Decitabine is associated with a unique DNA methylation profile at diagnosis and DNA methylation biomarkers can accurately predict clinical response to this agent in patients

Selected Cancer-Related Publications

Programs

Leader of the Multidisciplinary Research Program: Cancer Epigenetics Program

Collaborating in the Multidisciplinary Research Program(s):

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