Department of Chemistry



Kabirul Islam

Assistant Professor


1307 Chevron Science Center
Chevron Science Center
219 Parkman Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Research Overview

Chemical Approaches towards Understanding Epigenetic Mechanisms in Human Biology and Disease

Organic Synthesis, Bioorganic Chemistry, Small Molecule Therapeutics, Protein Engineering, Structural Biology and ‘Chromatinomics’

Our group, comprised of graduate students, undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows, has built the foundation of a vibrant research program focused on epigenetics. Biochemically, epigenetics is a DNA sequence-independent mechanism that controls the transcriptional potential of a cell by turning genes ‘on’ and ‘off’ and allows cells to access genetic information only when ‘needed’. Cells employ a range of epigenetic mechanisms, most prominent being the covalent chemical modifications on chromatin (DNA and histone complex) such as acetylation and methylation of lysine residues in histones, and cytosine methylation in DNA. We employ a range of small molecules, peptides, proteins, nucleotides and their unnatural analogues towards functional elucidation of chromatin modifications in transcriptional programming and cellular differentiation. With the improved molecular understanding, we plan to employ our methods to edit epigenetic processes for cell fate reprograming as well as correcting aberrant gene expression in human diseases like obesity and cancer. Our interdisciplinary research spans synthetic organic chemistry, protein and oligonucleotide engineering, mechanistic biochemistry, structural and cell biology, proteomics and transcriptomics.


Exploring the Functions of Epigenetic Proteins by Unnatural Amino Acid Mutagenesis

In order to respond to fluctuating developmental and environmental cues, cells employ epigenetic machineries for rapid gene regulation by forming transient complexes with essential proteins such as transcription factors. It has remained a significant challenge to characterize these transient interacting partners in cells. We have developed a novel chemoproteomic approach termed ‘interaction-based protein profiling’ (IBPP) by introducing a photo-crosslinkable amino acid (PCAA) into the hydrophobic pocket of epigenetic proteins to crosslink and enrich transient interacting partners that are inaccessible to traditional methods. Applying IBPP, we have uncovered novel BRD4 interactome such as transcription factors, thus providing new mechanistic insights into how BRD4 reprograms gene expression in normal and cancer cells.

Probing the Epigenetic Proteins by Allele-Specific Chemical Genetics

Epigenetic processes are regulated by a wide range of proteins that modify (writers), recognize (readers) and remove (erasers) specific chemical groups (acetyl, methyl, phosphate) in the chromatin landscape with high spatiotemporal control. Interrogating the function of a specific member is of monumental challenge. We are employing allele-specific chemical genetics (also known as analogue-sensitive chemical genetics or ‘bump-hole’ approach) to break the biochemical degeneracy of the homologous proteins through protein-small molecule engineering. We have developed ‘hole-modified’ epigenetic proteins that can be selectively modulated by ‘bumped’ small molecules (activators/inhibitors). We are currently applying these engineered epigenetic machines to reprogram transcriptional activity in human cells to investigate how transcriptional network set by epigenetic regulators control complex biological processes such as the cell cycle, lineage commitment and oncogenesis.

Targeting Metabolic and Epigenetic Proteins for Precision Medicine

Biochemical link between metabolism and epigenetics is becoming increasingly clear. The essential metabolite 2-ketoglutarate (2KG), produced in the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle by isocitrate dehydrogenases 1 (IDH1), serves as cofactor for >40 chromatin demethylases such as Ten-Eleven Translocation (TET), and Fat mass and obesity-associated protein FTO to regulate gene expression. Somatic mutations, overexpression and chromosomal translocation of these proteins drive multiple human conditions particularly cancer and obesity. We have initiated an active research program towards finding chemical inhibitors that selectively target the driver oncogenic mutations in these proteins to develop epigenome-based precision medicine.


  • Melanoma SPORE Award, UPCI (2015-2016)
  • Winters Foundation Biomedical Research Award (2014)
  • CRDF Award, University of Pittsburgh (2014)
  • Chair's Outstanding Poster Award, Bioorganic Gordon Conference (2011)
  • Visiting Research Fellowship, Starr Cancer Consortium (2010)


“Site-Specific Azide-Acetyllyisne Photochemistry on Epigenetic Reader Protein BRD4 for Interactome Profiling,” Sudhamalla, B.; Dey, D.; Breski, M.; Nguyen, T.; Islam, K. , Chem. Sci., Vol. 8, 2017, Pages 4250-4256
“Engineering Biological C-H Functionalization Leads to Allele-Specific Regulation of Histone Demethylases,” Breski, M.; Dey, D.; Obringer, S.; Sudhamalla, B.; Islam, K. , J. Am. Chem. Soc., Vol. 138, 2016, Pages 13505-13208
“Allele-Specific Chemical Genetics: Concepts, Strategies and Applications,” Islam, K. “.”  2015, 10, 343-363. , ACS Chem. Biol., Vol. 10, 2015, Pages 343-363
“Defining efficient enzyme-cofactor pairs for bioorthogonal profiling of protein methylation,” Islam, K.; Chen, Y.; Wu, H.; Bothwell, I.; Blum, G.; Zeng, H.; Dong, A.; Zheng, W.; Min, J.; Deng, H.; Luo, M. , Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA., Vol. 110, 2013, Pages 16778
“Profiling chromatin methylation with engineered posttranslation apparatus within living cells.,” Wang, R.¶; Islam, K.¶; Zheng, W.; Liu, Y.; Tang, H.; Blum, Gil.; Deng, H.; Luo, L. , J. Am. Chem. Soc., Vol. 135, 2013, Pages 1048
“Se-adenosyl-L-selenomethionine cofactor analogue as a reporter of protein methylation.,” Bothwell, I.; Islam, K.; Cheng, Y.; Zheng, W..; Blum, G.; Deng, H.; Luo, M. , J. Am. Chem. Soc., Vol. 134, 2012, Pages 14905
“Bioorthogonal profiling of protein methylation using azido derivative of S-adenosyl-L-methionine.,” Islam, K.; Bothwell, I.; Cheng, Y.; Sengelaub, C.; Wang, R.; Deng, H.; Luo, M. , J. Am. Chem. Soc., Vol. 134, 2012, Pages 5909
“Expanding cofactor repertoire of protein lysine methyltransferase for substrate labeling.,” Islam, K.; Zheng, W.; Yu, H.; Deng, H.; Luo, M. , ACS Chem. Biol., Vol. 6, 2011, Pages 679
“Myosin V inhibitor based on ‘privileged’ chemical scaffolds.,” Islam, K.; Olivares, A. O.; De La Cruz, E. M.; Kapoor, T. M. , Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Eng., Vol. 49, 2010, Pages 8484
“In situ cryo-crystallization of diphenyl ether: C-H…π mediated polymorphic forms.,” Choudhury, A. R.; Islam, K.; Krichner, M. T; Mehta, G.; Guru Row, T. N. , J. Am. Chem. Soc., Vol. 126, 2004, Pages 12274
“Enantioselective total synthesis of (-)-Epoxyquinols A and B. Novel, convenient access to chiral epoxyquinone building blocks through enzymatic desymmetrization.,” Mehta, G.; Islam, K. , Tetrahedron Lett., Vol. 45, 2004, Pages 3611
“Total synthesis of the novel NF-κB inhibitor (-)-Cycloepoxydon.,” Mehta, G.; Islam, K. , Org. Lett., Vol. 6, 2004, Pages 807
“Enantioselective total syntheses of (+) and (-)-ottelione A and (+) and (-)-ottelione B. Absolute configuration of the novel, biologically active natural products.,” Mehta, G.; Islam, K., Tetrahedron Lett., Vol. 44, 2003, Pages 6733
“Total Synthesis of epi-Otteliones.,” Mehta, G.; Islam, K., Org. Lett., Vol. 4, 2002, Pages 2881
“Total synthesis of (+)-otteliones A and B,” Mehta, G.; Islam, K. , Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Eng., Vol. 41, 2002, Pages 2396