Press release: Berlin Institute of Health confers early-career award for outstanding work on computational biology scientist Juliane Perner

The winner of the first BIH Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in Computational Biology has been announced: Dr. Juliane Perner receives the prize in Berlin today for her outstanding dissertation on chromatin regulation. The €10,000 prize is awarded by the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH).

Some human diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s, can be explained not only by our genes (i.e. the genetic material present in each cell) but also with the help of epigenetics, the “meta-level” of genetic regulation. The relevant epigenetic modifications include changes in the components of chromatin, the “packaging” of the genetic material. Chromatin consists of DNA that is wrapped tightly around histones in the cell. Histones are special proteins that play a key part in regulating genes encoded on the DNA. Dr. Juliane Perner’s dissertation “Bioinformatic Approaches for Understanding Chromatin Regulation,” for which she has now been honored with the BIH Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in Computational Biology, makes an important contribution to this field. In her study, Perner explores the interaction between histone modifications and proteins that alter the chromatin and the effect on various regulatory elements in the cell, for example in regions where the genetic information is read. While previous studies have analyzed only one gene or model system, Perner looked at the complete genome of a human cell. Current experimental methods can detect a large number of potential interactions between various proteins and histone modifications. Perner used new bioinformatics methods that enabled her to focus on the most important interactions, and as a result she identified two new interactions between proteins and histone modifications. These interactions ensure that cell division proceeds without error and that the genetic information – in particular the epigenetic modifications – is transmitted correctly. The study shows, on the methodological level, how useful hypotheses can be derived from complex datasets, and it contributes to a better understanding of the role of histone modifications in the cell. These findings may help in the future diagnosis and treatment of cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Dr. Perner, who completed her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, is now working in the University of Cambridge’s Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. She is currently studying how data on mutations can be integrated with data on the expressed genes in cancer cells in order to improve treatment options and strategies. One of her priorities is to identify biomarkers linked to tumor development and thereby facilitate prompt treatment.

The BIH Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in Computational Biology is being conferred for the first time in 2016. The aim of the prize is to acknowledge and draw attention to outstanding achievements made by women in this area of research. “Computational Biology is a fundamental and forward-looking field of research at the Berlin Institute of Health,” says Prof. Erwin Böttinger, Chief Executive Officer of BIH. “We can now generate very detailed patient data on a vast scale, but in order to use these data as a basis for usable predictions and new treatments in personalized medicine, we must understand them and combine them as best we can. I am delighted that the first BIH Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in Computational Biology is going to Dr. Juliane Perner, an outstanding scientist whose work is helping to advance methodology in this field of research and is of clear practical relevance.”