Federal funding cut leads to layoffs at WUSTL’s Genome Institute

Washington University’s Genome Institute has laid off 54 employees, representing about 17 percent of its 327 staff members.

The layoffs are due to a reduction in federal funding for large-scale genome centers like Washington University’s. The Genome Institute recently learned that its funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) will be reduced by approximately 23 percent, from $37.6 million to about $28 million, for the upcoming annual grant cycle. The current grant ends Oct. 31.

The number of employees at the Genome Institute has always been heavily dependent on support from NHGRI, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NHGRI funding makes up about 60 percent of the Genome Institute’s annual budget.

Washington University’s Genome Institute is one of three large-scale sequencing centers funded by NHGRI. The university anticipates that all three centers will sustain reductions in NHGRI support and that the Genome Institute will not be disproportionately affected.

The reduced funding to large-scale genome centers is part of NHGRI’s plan to broaden its support to include new smaller centers and projects focused on specific diseases, in addition to the medical sequencing projects at the large-scale genome centers. Some funds from the large-scale centers will be redirected to support these smaller centers and projects.

The size of the staff at the Genome Institute has fluctuated in the past, with a high of some 400 employees in the late 1990s. Staffing levels vary due to a variety of factors such as the availability of research funding, the number and complexity of projects and changes in technology. While fluctuations in staffing are not unusual, 54 is the largest number of employees affected at one time.

The layoffs will take effect Nov. 1 and affect employees in most areas of the Genome Institute, including administration, analysis, assembly, production and informatics.

Those affected by the layoffs will have the opportunity to meet with recruiters who can help find other employment opportunities both inside and outside Washington University. The university also has an employee assistance program, which provides counseling and referral services to employees and their immediate family members. Benefits managers will be available to the employees.

The university has partnered with the Missouri Career Center to provide assistance with job searches, retraining, career resources and skill development.

Over the years, NHGRI funding has enabled Genome Institute scientists to carry out groundbreaking research. These researchers played a key role in the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, which spelled out the precise order of the 6 billion chemical bases in a molecule of human DNA. More recently, a key focus of their research involves sequencing the genomes of cancer patients and their tumor cells to understand the genetic underpinnings of cancer. This work is thought to be essential to developing better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

The Genome Institute receives substantial NHGRI funding for the Cancer Genome Atlas Project to sequence the DNA of adult cancer patients and their tumors to identify the genetic changes important to cancer; the Human Microbiome Project, to sequence the genomes of bacteria involved in human health and disease; and the 1,000 Genomes Project, to catalog the immense human variation written into the genetic code. The Genome Institute also has teamed with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to decode the genomes of more than 600 childhood cancer patients as part of an unprecedented effort to identify the genetic changes underlying some of the deadliest pediatric cancers.