NIH funds four Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) announced Sept. 28 that they will award nearly $45 million in grants to establish new Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science at the Medical College of Wisconsin and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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BETHESDA, Md.—The National Human Genome Research Institute(NHGRI) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) announced Sept. 28that they will award nearly $45 million in grants to establish new Centers ofExcellence in Genomic Science at the Medical College of Wisconsin andUniversity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science program, begunin 2001 by NHGRI, assembles interdisciplinary teams dedicated to makingcritical advances in genomic research. The new center at the Medical College ofWisconsin in Milwaukee will receive about $8 million over three years, and thenew center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will receive about$8.6 million over five years.
The institutes, both part of the National Institutes ofHealth (NIH), said they will also continue to support existing centers at JohnsHopkins University and the University of Southern California. The existingcenter at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles will receive about$12 million over five years and the existing center at Johns Hopkins Universityin Baltimore will receive about $16.8 million over five years.
NHGRI will provide funding to all four centers. The firsttwo years of the University of North Carolina center will be funded by NIMH,which will contribute about $6 million through the 2009 American Recovery andReinvestment Act. In addition, NIMH will also provide approximately $1.7million, in non-recovery funds, of the total funding awarded to the JohnsHopkins center.
"Our aim is to foster the formation of innovative researchteams that will develop genomic tools and technologies that help to advancehuman health," says Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, NHGRI's acting director. "Each ofthese centers is in a position to tackle some of the most challenging questionsfacing biology today."
For example, the new Center for Integrated Systems Geneticsat University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will strive to develop newapproaches for identifying genetic and environmental factors that underlie andcontribute to impairments associated with psychiatric disorders. The team, ledby Dr. Fernando Pardo Manuel de Villena, will integrate the study of geneticsand neurobehavior using unique strains of laboratory mice to define the geneticand environmental factors that occur in human psychiatric conditions.
To validate this approach, researchers will then generatenovel strains of mice to study relevant behavioral traits. The resultingpredictive mouse models could then be used as a resource by the scientificcommunity in subsequent genetic and genomic studies focused on humanpsychiatric disorders and other health conditions as well as predictingtreatment outcomes in relevant human populations.
"NIMH is pleased to partner with NHGRI and to be able tosupport this innovative study with funding through the American Recovery andReinvestment Act of 2009," says NIMH Director Dr. Thomas R. Insel. "Thesesophisticated genetic models will provide new opportunities to accelerate thepace of scientific discovery and to make progress toward understanding howgenes shape behavior."
At the Medical College of Wisconsin, the new center will beled by Dr. Michael Olivier, and include researchers from Marquette Universityin Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This research team willfocus on identifying regulatory mechanisms that turn genes on and off anddetermining how they may be altered by critical biological processes, diseasesor environmental factors, such as drugs.
Rather than using the traditional approach of identifyingthe DNA sequences where regulatory factors bind, these researchers plan todevelop novel technologies that identify the proteins that bind to particularDNA regions. Through this approach, the team may be able to identify entirelynew regulatory proteins. The researchers' ultimate goal is to develop a toolboxthat can be used to better understand the relationship between changes inprotein-DNA interactions and the underlying complex machinery controllinggenes.
Over the past five years, an interdisciplinary team ofresearchers led by Dr. Andrew Feinberg at John Hopkins University's Center forEpigenetics of Common Human Disease has developed the novel statistical andanalytical tools necessary to identify epigenetic modifications across theentire human genome. Epigenetic modifications, or marks, involve the additionof certain molecules, such as methyl groups, to the backbone of the DNAmolecule. This action may turn genes on and off, thereby spurring or blockingthe production of proteins.
The Johns Hopkins team has already used the new tools toidentify epigenetic marks associated with certain types of cancer, depressionand autism. Now, Feinberg and his colleagues will work on refining theirapproach so that it can be used efficiently and cost effectively in largerstudies. The team specifically hopes to apply their tools to studies focusingon bipolar disorder, aging and autism. The researchers also will explore howvarious other factors, such as a person's genetic makeup, lifestyle choices andenvironmental exposures, interact with epigenetic factors to cause disease.
At the USC center, established in 2003, a team led by Dr.Simon Tavaré, will continue its work to improve the computational andstatistical tools needed to understand genetic variation and its relationshipto human disease. Recently, scientists have used genome-wide associationstudies to identify hundreds of regions of the genome that contain variantsthat contribute to the risk of common health conditions, such as cardiovasculardisease and type 2 diabetes.
Follow-up studies are needed to pinpoint exactly whichgenetic variants cause the increased risk, and to learn more about the functionof these genetic variants. To help facilitate such work, the research team willnow focus on how data from genome-wide association studies translate intoobservable traits, such as weight or blood pressure. Using fruit flies andother model organisms, the researchers plan to develop a framework for a mapthat would tie together genetic variants with their corresponding observabletraits.
Besides carrying out their research missions, Centers ofExcellence in Genomic Science serve as a focal point for providing educationand training about genomic research to under-represented minorities.Participants range from college undergraduates to post-doctoral fellows.

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