As one of just six sites in the country chosen for a new consortium of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Brownsville will use multi-omics in combination with environmental, epidemiologic, and clinical data, along with social determinants of health, to study non-alcoholic and non-viral liver disease in Hispanics/Latinos.
The $4 million School of Public Health project, which will be built on the framework of the landmark Cameron County Hispanic Cohort of Hispanic/Latino participants, is funded as part of the NIH’s $50.3 million Multi-omics for Health and Disease Consortium. Multi-omics refers to the research incorporation of data from different “omics” such as genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. In the consortium as a whole, at least 75% of those studied will be from ancestral backgrounds underrepresented in genomics research.
“We hope this research will lead to knowledge that will help us identify those at high risk before they develop significant liver disease, as well as for possible treatments with special emphasis on understudied minorities such as our Hispanic/Latino population,” said Joseph McCormick, MD, MPH, professor and James H. Steele, DVM, Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences and founding dean of the School of Public Health’s Brownsville location.
Metabolic-associated fatty liver disease encompasses a range of chronic liver diseases, including non-alcoholic fatty liver, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, and liver fibrosis, and has no approved drug therapy. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it is most common among Hispanic/Latino individuals.
Molecular data, such as gene expression and protein levels found in accessible tissues like whole blood and abdominal fat, are scarce. Researchers will be looking at liver disease progression over time, collecting specimens and measures of metabolic-associated fatty liver disease, cardiometabolic risk factors, and social determinants of health in attempt to understand underlying mechanisms and prepare the ground for effective treatment.
Using the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort, consisting of individuals in an understudied, high-risk Hispanic/Latino population, researchers will enroll 300 participants, comprising 200 with metabolic-associated fatty liver disease and 100 without disease. The team will develop best practices for the collection of data, use complex data analysis techniques to detect and assess molecular profiles of healthy and disease states, and create a multi-dimensional dataset available to the scientific community for future studies through the consortium’s data analysis and coordination center.
Ultimately, researchers hope to identify possible genes and their related elements that are associated with susceptibility and progression of liver disease in participants.
McCormick said success in receiving this award was based on extensive collaborations across UTHealth Houston schools and other institutions. Principal investigators, in addition to McCormick, include Kari North, PhD, from Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Jennifer “Piper” E. Below, PhD, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Co-investigators include Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Brownsville; and Absalon Gutierrez, MD, and Tugrul Purnak, MD, from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.
The award for the School of Public Health project is funded by the National Cancer Institute. The NIH consortium also includes three sites in California, one in New York, and one in Illinois. McCormick has been asked to co-chair the steering committee to harmonize the work of each site in the consortium’s first year.
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