In 1996, Dr. Shilatifard identified the biochemical function of the Mixed Lineage Leukemia (MLL) gene translocation partner for the first time. The translocation partner, a gene called ELL, encodes an elongation factor: a protein that controls when, where and how fast the RNA Polymerase II transcription machinery can “read out” the instructions encoded in our genes. This discovery began a scientific journey to better understand elongation factors and other transcriptional control mechanisms, both in embryonic development and in cancer. Taking you along on this journey, Dr. Shilatifard will describe how he isolated all of the other MLL translocation partners in a “tour de force” application of biochemistry and molecular genetics, resulting in the astounding finding that these seemingly unrelated proteins actually function together within the (now widely known) Super Elongation Complex (SEC). In further research, the SEC emerged as a central factor regulating gene transcription at the elongation stage, and the lab has developed chemical compounds to disrupt or inhibit the Super Elongation Complex that are now in pre-clinical studies for the treatment of cancers caused by transcriptional defects. The story continues with his lab’s current research investigating how elongation factors, chromatin and the epigenome control transcription in human development and disease.
Dr. Ali Shilatifard, Chairman and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, graduated from Kennesaw State University in 1989 with a degree in Chemistry with an emphasis in Organic Chemistry. While at KSU, Shilatifard slept in his car at night for a period in front of the gym and worked all over the campus from bussing tables at the student center, to cooking in the back kitchen, serving as the dispatch for the Kennesaw State College police department, and working as a TA in the Chemistry lab and Math lab to support himself and his education. He was supported by a full academic scholarship by KSU after his first year and graduated in four years. Now, Shilatifard is a renowned biochemist and cancer biologist. He
made a seminal contribution to the field of leukemia biology early in his career by identifying the function of a gene translocation in childhood leukemia for the first time. In the 25 years since that discovery, he has dedicated his career to revealing the causes of childhood leukemia and other cancers and to leveraging these findings for the development of new cancer therapies. He currently runs an active research laboratory, heads a large department while he also is the Director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for Epigenetics. Shilatifard has authored over 250 scientific publications and is one of the founding members and is the current Editor of the online publication, Science Advances. He is one of the few scientists in the United States funded by the National Cancer Institute’s Outstanding Investigator Award, and in an effort to inspire young students to consider the STEM fields, he and his wife Laura started the Simpson Querrey Inspire Program.