The 2019 QUEX PhD candidates are working on the following projects. Please note, these positions have been filled.

11. Cross-disorder analyses of DNA methylation data for disorders of the brain

UQ academic lead

Naomi Wray, Professorial Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, and Affiliate Professor, Queensland Brain Institute

Exeter academic lead

Professor Jonathan Mill, Professor of Epigenetics, University of Exeter Medical School

Project description

Neurological, psychiatric and cognitive ageing disorders represent a great and increasing burden in society, and compared to other diseases advances in the development of new treatment and prevention options have been very limited. Current diagnostic classifications of these disorders are based on clinical phenotypes and do not take into account underlying disease heterogeneity, or overlapping disease mechanisms, thus hindering therapy development. Segregation and re-classification of phenotypes is urgently needed. Genetic analyses have demonstrated shared genetic factors both within and between psychiatric and neurological disorders implying shared molecular pathways across traditional diagnostic boundaries.

While the heritability of these genetically complex disorders ranges from 40-80%, a considerable part of susceptibility is non-genetic, with robust evidence for environmental exposures and gene/environment interactions as important contributors to disease pathogenesis.

Epigenetic processes act to dynamically control gene expression independently of DNA sequence variation and are known to regulate key neurobiological and cognitive processes in the brain. DNA methylation is the best characterized and stable epigenetic modification, providing a biological mechanism through which environmental factors can affect disease risk.

In this PhD project, the student will undertake cross-disorder epigenetic analyses to discover common and unique molecular pathways for disease. Extensive data sets are already available for analysis and more data will become available in the next three years. New methods may need to be developed as part of the strategy of undertaking this novel research. The project combines two leading international research groups: The Program in Complex Trait Genomics at the University of Queensland and The Complex Disease Epigenetic Group at the University of Exeter and is embedded in a broader network of international collaboration.