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SMHS researcher receives first portion of $1.6M for epigenetic study

Grant funding to be used to investigate gene modifications in Sjogren’s Syndrome

Brij Singh
For over 20 years, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Sciences Brij Singh has been studying the role certain genes play in Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune systems attacks the body’s own cells and tissues. Archival photo.

UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences Assistant Dean for Research Brij Singh, who also serves as a professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, has received the first-year portion ($330,125) of a five-year, $1.65 million R01 grant for epigenetic research related to Sjogren’s Syndrome.

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Sjogren’s Syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects primarily moisture-secreting glands, especially in women over age 40. The syndrome’s most common early symptoms are dry eyes and mouth. Dr. Singh’s project seeks to understand how epigenomic changes in specific genes over women’s lifetimes affects the activation of immune cells that result in Sjogren’s Syndrome.

Epigenomics is the study of the epigenetic modifications (changes in the traits a person’s genes express that cannot be attributed to DNA) on the genetic material of a cell.

“Sjogren’s often occurs in conjunction with other autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus,” explains Dr. Singh. “It seems that as some people age, especially some genes on the X-chromosomes—females have two X chromosome and one of them is randomly inactivated—begin to ‘lose control’ of their inactivation mechanism for a number of reasons, including epigenetic changes. Thus, the long-term goal of this project is to elucidate the role of epigenetic regulations in the onset of Sjogren’s.”

If left undiagnosed and untreated, the syndrome results in certain cancers, lymphoma in particular, in more than 50 percent of patients. Researchers estimate that more than 1 million people around the world are affected by Sjogren’s, with many never knowing they have the condition.

Brij Singh
Singh (center) was named a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, UND’s highest and most prestigious faculty honor, in May 2016. Archival Photo.

Distinguished researcher

A research project grant labeled an “R01” is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH. The R01 provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH, according to the NIH.

One of the seven goals of the new One UND Strategic Plan is to promote high-level research such as that performed by Singh in his University lab — consistent with research-intensive universities (ranked with the Carnegie R1 designation).

Singh has been studying the role certain genes play in Sjogren’s for more than 20 years. In 2016, Singh was recognized with UND’s highest and most prestigious academic honor when he was named a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor.

-Brian James Schill, assistant director of the SMHS Office of Alumni and Community Relations