NUgene Grant Furthers Disease-Specific Genetic Research
A $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will carry forward the work of the NUgene project in examining the role of genetics in common diseases, while creating research linkages both between Northwestern and other institutions and among disciplines within the Feinberg School of Medicine.
The grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), with additional funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, will enable researchers at NUgene, a genetic biorepository project within the Center for Genetic Medicine, to draw from larger patient populations by creating a data cooperative. This cooperative includes the Marshfield (Wisconsin) Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Vanderbilt University, and Group Health Cooperative (Seattle, WA). Together, these institutions form the “Electronic Medical Records and Genomics” Network, or eMERGE Network for short.
The network of five institutions, which has received $20 million overall, will examine how electronic medical records data can be used for large-scale genetic research. Researchers at NUgene will examine the promise and pitfalls of this methodology by focusing on patients with diabetes and asthma, with the goal of pursuing “personalized” medicine tailored to an individual’s DNA.
The NUgene project collects and stores DNA samples along with associated healthcare information from patients of Northwestern-affiliated hospitals and clinics. “One thing we desperately need is to understand how human genetic variation contributes to disease, the success of therapeutic interventions, and adverse effects or drug reactions. The goal of NUgene is to understand the results of those variations,” says Rex L. Chisholm, PhD, principal investigator for the grant and the NUgene Project, and Adam and Richard T. Lind Professor of Medical Genetics and dean for research. NUgene currently stores 7,500 DNA samples in freezers and is working to collect more. The four-year NHGRI grant will ramp up the ability of NUgene to perform its work by connecting the center with other institutions, Dr. Chisholm says.
“By combining our resources with other institutions, we can probably move that number quite a bit higher, which gives us the statistical power to make some of these correlations between genetic variants and disease risk,” Dr. Chisholm says. “In this project we will test the idea that we can mine electronic medical records to define people who have [risk factors for]either asthma or diabetes.”
Researchers will compare the genetic profiles of those diagnosed with such diseases and look for commonalities. “That’s important because every time you want to study a disease, you have to find people with that disease,” he said. “We can just look through the medical record data and find people who just have that in their medical records. It’s very efficient.”
“The grant provides an opportunity to recruit larger patient populations for research,” says Wendy A. Wolf, PhD, director of NUgene. “The key is whether sufficient data is contained within the electronic medical records system to be valuable for this type of genetic research.”
Researchers also will explore the social and ethical ramifications, a consistent focus for NUgene throughout its work. Dr. Wolf notes that while the notion of bio-repositories is nothing new—tissue banks have been around for decades, for example—genetic information is much more sensitive. Researchers need to ensure that people who participate in these initiatives understand how their samples and data will be used.
The NUgene researchers include those with backgrounds in genetics, epidemiology, internal medicine, bioinformatics, endocrinology, allergy, infectious diseases, genetic counseling, public health, and molecular biology. The five-year-old NUgene project has worked more broadly to facilitate scientific investigations of genetic connections to diseases and their treatments. Dr. Wolf hopes the grant will help spark ongoing recruitment activities with a goal of hitting 10,000 DNA samples by the end of 2008. She said that eight studies are currently under way using samples gathered from NUgene.
For more information about NUgene, please call 312/695-0700 or visit the Website www.nugene.org.