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Oregon Health and Science University Launches Human Genetics Initiative

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The Oregon Health and Science University has launched the Human Genetics Initiative (HGI), an effort that brings together the university's vast array of genetics research resources and brainpower, and applies them in a health care setting.

The initiative will allow the university to seek new ways of understanding the role of genetics in common disorders like obesity, hypertension, osteoporosis and diabetes.

According to University, the goal of HGI is to accelerate the translation of scientific knowledge to patient care by recruiting new geneticists, building a campus wide bank of advanced technology, developing new educational programs for the next generation of health care providers, and, establishing a delivery model for genetics health care.

Officials say that the timing is right for the initiative, as genetics becomes a more critical part of all aspects of medicine. OHSU President Joseph E. Robertson, Jr., M.D., M.B.A., said the HGI represents a new era of research, education and patient care for OHSU.

"OHSU’s Human Genetics Initiative advances our strategic goal of integrating our missions, departments and units," he said. "HGI offers a cross-disciplinary, academic model that supports innovations in genetics in our community and worldwide."

The launch of the OHSU Human Genetics Initiative coincides with the fifth annual National DNA Day, organized by the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute to commemorate the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003 and the discovery of DNA's double helix in 1953.

HGI director Susan Hayflick, M.D., professor molecular and medical genetics in the OHSU School of Medicine, said the initiative creates the launching pad for OHSU's full-scale foray into genomic medicine.

"It's an opportunity to integrate OHSU's research community into what's going to be the medicine of tomorrow, which is personalized medicine," Hayflick said.

The collection of technology and laboratory services the Human Genetics Initiative has at its disposal is massive. Researchers have their choice of nearly a dozen in-house DNA sequencing, nucleotide synthesis, polymorphism detection, gene expression and cytogenetics laboratories, including precision robotic microarray or gene chip equipment, and have access to more than 80 genome catalogs and database mining tools.

"Anything that makes DNA or reads DNA, all of those resources on campus are available," Hayflick said. The initiative is "a freely accessible resource open to anyone at OHSU."

A challenge of taking genetics knowledge from bench to bedside is the need to build out existing educational paradigms. A part of the Human Genetics Initiative will be to create a national model for integrating genetics training into subspecialty medical education.

"The potential of genetics in practice is limited to some extent by too few appropriately trained medical geneticists. A goal of the OHSU Human Genetics Initiative will be to help close the gap between education and clinical practice," said Mark Richardson, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the OHSU School of Medicine.

The initiative is supported by funds from the OHSU School of Medicine, the Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, the Oregon Opportunity, and the Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute (OCTRI), the research partnership between OHSU and Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research that was funded by the National Institutes of Health in October 2006. Eric Orwoll, M.D., OCTRI's director, said the diversity of support speaks to the "inherently multidisciplinary" nature of the initiative and genetics in general.

"It will collaborate with a variety of investigators, clinicians, and departments," said Orwoll, professor of medicine (endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition) and director of the Bone and Mineral Unit, OHSU School of Medicine. "The Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute has devoted considerable resources to genetics research and will work in close partnership with HGI."

"If we are to be part of the development of the field, we must add some critical resources, and coordinate our talent and technologies. The HGI will do that," Orwoll said.