UTHealth part of NIH-funded genome center to accelerate precision medicine discoveries

Photo of Eric Boerwinkle, PhD [CREDIT: Nash Baker]
Eric Boerwinkle, PhD [CREDIT: Nash Baker]

HOUSTON – The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) will be part of a new genome center, one of just three created nationally with $28.6 million in funding from the All of Us Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH announced yesterday that these centers will begin to generate genomic data from biosamples contributed by the program’s participants. These data will become a critical component in the program’s precision medicine research platform, providing a national resource to support studies on a variety of important health questions.

UTHealth will be part of a center led by Baylor College of Medicine with Johns Hopkins University. The two other centers are the University of Washington; and The Broad Institute of Cambridge, Mass. with Color of Burlingame, Calif., and the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine at Partners HealthCare.

“Fifteen years after the mapping of the human genome, this is a pivotal step toward realizing the promise of that historic achievement,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “Including high quality genomic information along with many other data types collected in the All of Us program will speed up scientific breakthroughs and ultimately improve the health of future generations.”

Eric Boerwinkle, Ph.D., dean of UTHealth School of Public Health and associate director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor said, “We are delighted to be a part of the All of Us Research Program, which I see as a giant pilot project for the integration of responsible biomedical research and health care in the future. The partnership between UTHealth, Baylor College of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University is an experienced one, and we look forward to generating high quality genotype and sequence data and aid in the clinical interpretation of those data.”

The genome center awardees were selected based on their proven track record of generating genomic data at scale, providing clinical validation services to verify medically relevant variants and participating in large-scale research collaborations. The award periods may extend up to five years, pending progress and the availability of funds.

“Being able to interpret complex genetic information, in combination with environmental and behavioral factors, is the future of medicine,” said Michael R. Blackburn, Ph.D., executive vice president and chief academic officer at UTHealth. “We are proud that Eric Boerwinkle and his team are involved in leading these efforts.”

The All of Us Research Program is one of the country’s most ambitious biomedical research efforts ever undertaken. It aims to build a nationwide community of 1 million or more participants from all walks of life, including groups that have been historically underrepresented in research. So far, more than 110,000 people have registered with the program to begin the participant journey, and more than 60,000 have completed all elements of the core protocol. These participants are sharing different types of information, including through surveys, access to their electronic health records and blood and urine samples. Over time, they will continue to share information through additional surveys, biosamples, fitness trackers and more. These data, stripped of obvious identifiers, will be accessible to researchers, whose findings may lead to more tailored treatments and prevention strategies in the future.

“Diversity is a hallmark of this effort. We strive for diversity of people and also diversity of data types, so researchers can understand the many factors that influence health and health outcomes for each of us,” said Eric Dishman, director of the All of Us Research Program. “Bringing on these new partners is an important milestone for our program as we look to add genotyping and whole genome sequencing data to the many other data types we’re already collecting.”

The genome centers will ramp up operations in coming months. In addition to producing genome data for researchers, the centers will analyze the data for genetic results to be responsibly returned to participants who are interested in receiving them. Initially, these results will include information about a set of 59 genes known to be associated with risk of certain diseases amenable to prevention or early diagnosis (known as the ACMG 59), as defined by the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics. The centers also will return information about drug-gene interactions (pharmacogenomics) that may help inform what medications might be best suited for particular conditions based on participants’ genetic makeup. In the future, information about participants’ ancestry and traits will also be available.

The program is committed to providing participants access to their information in a responsible way. Later this year, the program will issue a funding announcement for genetic counseling resources to support this commitment.

“Many people are curious about their genetic makeup,” said Dishman. “This program will empower participants to learn more about their health, while furthering research to benefit all of us.”

The All of Us Research Program Genome Centers are supported by NIH award numbers OT2OD002748, OT2OD02750, and OT2OD002751.

  • Adapted from a press release from the National Institutes of Health

— Written by Victoria Tagg, Media Contact: 1-713-500-3030