One of the nation’s most influential scientists, Andy Feinberg is considered the founder of the field of cancer epigenetics. During his postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins, he and Bert Vogelstein, the Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institution investigator, discovered epigenetic alterations in human cancer. Whereas the gene sequence provides the alphabet of the genetic code, epigenetics provides the grammar that tells genes whether they should be on or off.
Over the decades since, Feinberg and his collaborators have shaped the landscape of our understanding of DNA methylation and other epigenetic changes, and their applications to epidemiology and medicine, and have introduced groundbreaking statistical and laboratory methods to the study of the genome. Regarding the latter, Feinberg is studying the epigenetic effects of spaceflight on the Kelly identical twins as one of 10 principal investigators on NASA’s Twins Study.
To explore the possibility of astronauts sequencing their own DNA on future longer flights, Feinberg recently tested laboratory techniques for sequencing at zero gravity in NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft with successful results.
Feinberg directs the Center for Epigenetics, one of the leading research centers in the world focused on the chemical tags of the human genome. Together with his insights into loss of imprinting in cancer, Feinberg’s work on Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome established the first causal link between epigenetic changes and cancer risk. Cancer epigenetics has become one of the core areas of cancer research and therapy. Feinberg expanded beyond cancer research to create the first epigenome center in the country to develop tools to understand the role of epigenetics in all aspects of human disease and, in fact, in evolution itself. Discovering most of the previously unknown epigenetic targets that distinguish one person from another, and disease from normal, his center was a major driver of the explosion of epigenetics research worldwide.
With Daniele Fallin of the Bloomberg School of Public Health, he has pioneered the field of epigenetic epidemiology, demonstrating for the first time how genetics, epigenetics, and the environment interact to cause disease. From the epigenomics of autoimmune disease to rheumatoid arthritis to autism to obesity, Feinberg’s leadership has positioned Johns Hopkins at the vanguard of this burgeoning interdisciplinary field.
As a recipient of an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for scientists of exceptional creativity, Feinberg is now pursuing a novel idea that epigenetics might regulate randomness, varying how similar or different one’s offspring are, or how different the behaviors of cells might be within a person’s tissue. This could provide an advantage in natural selection in a changing external environment, and it also might lead cancer cells to survive internal changes in the body, such as metastasis and chemotherapy.
Feinberg studied mathematics and humanities at Yale University in the directed studies program, received his bachelor’s and medical degrees from the accelerated medical program at Johns Hopkins, and completed a master’s in public health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He held a postdoctoral fellowship in developmental biology at the University of California, San Diego, did clinical training in medicine and medical genetics at the University of Pennsylvania and genetics research at Johns Hopkins, and was an HHMI investigator at the University of Michigan before returning to Hopkins in 1994.