Washington University’s Genome Institute has received a $114 million grant to continue its groundbreaking genomic research.
The institute is a world leader in unraveling the genetic basis of cancer, deciphering the genetic differences among humans around the globe, and exploring the DNA of microbial genes that naturally coexist with human genes in every nook and cranny in the body.
The four-year grant comes from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The university’s Genome Institute is one of only three large federally funded genome centers in the United States.
“The new grant allows us to build on our earlier work and more effectively decode the information contained in our genomes to better understand, diagnose and cure disease,” says Richard K. Wilson, PhD, director of the Genome Institute and a professor of genetics. “In this next phase of funding, we will discover new sequence variants that can be used to select the best treatment options for patients — a primary goal of personalized medicine.”
The new grant underscores the expertise of the university’s Genome Institute, which contributed heavily to the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, and has consistently helped to develop new technologies to improve the accuracy of genome sequencing and the analysis of genomic data.
Sequencing involves spelling out the precise order of the 6 billion chemical letters — a long string of As, Cs, Gs and Ts — that make up a molecule of DNA. While the order of those letters varies slightly from person to person, the challenge for scientists has been to determine which variations are considered “healthy” and which can contribute to cancer or other genetic diseases.
In 2008, scientists at the Genome Institute became the first to sequence the genome of a cancer patient. By comparing the patient’s own genome with the genome of her tumor cells, they identified the genetic errors that likely caused her cancer.
Earlier this year, the scientists demonstrated how genomic data can be used to select the best treatment option. By sequencing the genome of a patient with leukemia, they found an obscure mutation responsible for her cancer. A potentially risky and expensive bone marrow transplant initially had been recommended for the patient, based on an incomplete picture of the genetic error in her tumor cells. But the new information revealed that she could be successfully treated with a chemotherapy drug that targets the mutation in her cancer cells. The patient now is in remission.
A portion of the cancer genomics research at the institute is being carried out as part of the Cancer Genome Atlas project, a collaboration funded by NHGRI and the National Cancer Institute. The university’s Genome Institute researchers also are playing a leading role in the 1,000 Genomes Project, to understand human genetic variation, and the Human Microbiome Project, to explore and catalog the trillions of microbes that inhabit the human body and determine how they contribute to good health and disease.
“NHGRI relies on the large-scale centers to be its sequencing production and intellectual powerhouses,” says Adam Felsenfeld, PhD, director for NHGRI’s Genome Sequencing Program in the Division of Extramural Research. “They carried the heaviest workloads for NIH during the Human Genome Project, and they have become world leaders in genomics. We look forward to their continued contributions to increase the value of genome sequencing for both biology and biomedicine.”
The new grant is less than the Genome Institute’s previous four-year NHGRI Center grant. The reduction reflects the NHGRI’s reduced funding to large-scale genome centers, as they begin to support smaller centers and projects focused on specific diseases. The Genome Institute learned of the new funding in advance and reduced the number of its staff accordingly. The grant represents 60 percent of the Genome Institute’s 2012 annual budget and is the largest grant awarded to Washington University this fiscal year.
Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.