Genomics core makes ‘good progress’ in first year, experts say

Media Credit: Courtesy of Keith Crandall

Keith Crandall, a biostatistics and bioinformatics professor and the director of the Computational Biology Institute in the Science and Engineering Hall, said core researchers conducted studies on topics like forensics and how genetics affect human health.

Updated: Oct. 28, 2019 at 11:42 a.m.

A genome sequencing center in the Milken Institute School of Public Health has processed about 7,300 gene samples and serviced almost 80 research projects in its first year.

Officials in the public health school instituted the Genomics Core last October to help researchers conduct studies, like on identifying ways to solve HIV and disease epidemics pertinent to DNA sequencing. Genome sequencing experts said the number of projects and genetic samples the core processed shows the center is making “good progress” in its first year.

Keith Crandall, a biostatistics and bioinformatics professor and the director of the Computational Biology Institute in the Science and Engineering Hall, said core researchers conducted studies on topics like forensics and how genetics affect human health. He said faculty from several disciplines, ranging from precision medicine to climate science, can use the core to conduct research in their fields.

“The ability to generate genomic data facilitates a wide range of research projects and provides students experience with the latest technologies in growing areas of career opportunities,” Crandall said in an email.

He added that professors who teach courses on topics like next-generation sequencing, genomics and bioinformatics use the core to grant students practical experience using DNA sequencing technology. Crandall said DNA sequencing experts can help faculty members who work in the core design their studies and collect preliminary research data, which increases the likelihood of researchers receiving external research grants.

He said the public health school hopes to integrate long-read sequencing technology – which reads DNA sequences down to the level of single molecules – and expand bioinformatics support, which helps students and faculty understand how to analyze genetic data.

Crandall said the school aims to further integrate the core into academic coursework so students can learn about DNA sequencing and bioinformatics.

“These courses provide students with hands-on experience with genomic data, bioinformatic tools for data analyses, and foundational knowledge of genomics, DNA sequencing approaches and analytical concepts,” Crandall said.

Genomics experts said the core is making “good progress” in its first year, but similar centers typically process hundreds to thousands of DNA samples in a year.

Andrew Lea, a student laboratory technician at the University of Minnesota’s genomics center, said processing about 7,000 samples in the first year is above-average progress for a smaller genomics core, like the public health school’s. He said larger genomics cores at other universities typically process hundreds of thousands of samples per year and service thousands of research projects.

Lea said increased opportunities to work in a genomics center teach students to perform DNA sequencing analysis, which develops skills students will need for future careers in biostatistics and bioinformatics.

“They’re just a really good experience for students,” Lea said. “I’ve worked here for three years and it’s helped me figure out what I want to do with my life and given me a lot of skills to be able to do whatever I want.”

Janette Lamb, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Genomics Research Core, said genomics facilities are becoming more popular at universities because the cores attract research funding. She said universities are unlikely to receive grants for DNA sequencing research if researchers at the institution aren’t already studying the genome.

Lamb added that genetic data is “worthless” without the technological resources to properly interpret DNA sequences.

“If you analyze a tumor, you know which antibodies to use and how to target that tumor to kill it,” Lamb said. “You don’t want to do that, you want to make sure that everything is gone. So I think that is the future that we want to head toward.”

This post was updated to correct the following: 

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the Computational Biology Institute is on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus. The institute is in the Science and Engineering Hall. We regret this error.

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