Meet a PennMedicine Researcher

Shelley L. Berger, PhD

Shelley L. Berger, PhD

Shelley L. Berger, PhD, Daniel S. Och University Professor, is the winner of this year’s Stanley N. Cohen Biomedical Research Award, which recognizes a member of the Perelman School of Medicine faculty for a body of work with an emphasis on biomedical research. 

Dr.  Berger has consistently been at the cutting edge of the epigenetics field over the last two decades. Her groundbreaking work is focused on understanding how the regulation of gene expression through histone modifications controls major developmental processes including ageing, behavior, and cancer. Her past research findings have helped to establish the prevailing view that histone modifications regulate genomic functions, including transcription of genes, DNA replication during cell division, repair of DNA mutations as a result of DNA damage, and other processes. Work in her laboratory has focused on transcription, or the turning on and off of gene expression, and the myriad of histone modifications that occur, such as acetylation, phosphorylation, and methylation, among other chemical changes. Her research has also helped to reveal how some of these modifications, first characterized on histone substrates function to regulate non-histone proteins. In 2015-2016 alone she published five major articles in Science, Nature, and Genes and Development, as well as a review article in Cell. The topics range from the role of epigenetics in controlling behavior in social ants (featured in the New York Times), to the mechanism by which autophagy causes epigenetic changes, and how gain-of-function mutations in p53, the most frequently mutated gene in cancer, co-opt its activity. More recent, very exciting work from her laboratory is that cellular senescence triggers inflammation via signaling through nucleic acid sensing pathways, work which crosses over into the area of immunology. Dr. Berger has put Penn Medicine on the map in the epigenetics field by establishing the Epigenetics Program and hiring and mentoring talented young investigators in the field. One colleague said of her, “She is an exceptional example of all the best things about Penn, including excellent science, dedication to mentorship, and collegiality that makes the overall efforts of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine so impactful.”