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UT leads $2.5 million training program in pioneering area of genetic research

A consortium led by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has received a $2.5 million award to train investigators in a ground-breaking area of genetic study known as gene-environment interaction.

Scientists studying gene-environment interaction are trying to discover why some people with known risk factors for disease get sick and others don't. The answer may have to do with the interplay between their genes and environmental factors such as exposure to viruses, pollution or cigarette smoke.

The consortium, which also includes The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine, earned a 2009 Institutional Program Unifying Population and Laboratory Based Sciences Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing biomedical sciences. It is one of three awards from a proposal pool of 61.

"This is an achievement for the Texas Medical Center," said C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., award co-director and director/CEO of The Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), a part of the UT Health Science Center at Houston. "It speaks to the quality of research in the Texas Medical Center and the collaboration among institutions." The five-year-award starts Feb. 2.

Gene-environment interaction is the combined impact of genetic susceptibility factors and modifiable environmental factors on disease. Genetic variations, according to the National Office of Public Health Genomics, do not cause disease but rather influence a person's susceptibility to environmental factors, broadly defined to include infectious, chemical, physical, nutritional and behavioral factors.

"This is the type of cutting edge, interdisciplinary program that will help bring the best and brightest young scientists to Houston because they can receive the training of the future that integrates population, laboratory, and information sciences I expect many future national leaders to come out of our program," said George Stancel, Ph.D., dean of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS), who serves on the consortium training committee.

The consortium plans to recruit five to six students a year who will have the opportunity to pursue a doctorate program of their choice at participating institutions, so long as their research is in the broad area of gene-environment interaction. Students opting for the health science center program can receive a doctoral degree from the GSBS, The University of Texas School of Public Health or The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston (SHIS). They will work in the laboratories of faculty members at those schools, The University of Texas Medical School at Houston or the IMM.

"The Burroughs Wellcome Fund training grant is a bridge linking the UT Health Science Center, the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Baylor College of Medicine. The program is a model for collaboration in the future," said Eric Boerwinkle, Ph.D., award co-director, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Kozmetsky Family Chair in Human Genetics at the UT School of Public Health and the Institute of Molecular Medicine.

Pharmacogeneticsthe study of the effects of genes on drug responseis an example of a gene-environment interaction, Boerwinkle said.

"There are millions of people taking medicines to lower their blood pressure. The particular type of medication the physician prescribes to a patient is not an exact science and there is an element of trial and error in the process. Individuals do not respond to a particular medication to the same extent and some people respond to one drug but not another," Boerwinkle said. "At least a portion of the variation in drug response is attributable to genetic differences among individuals. Researchers at the UT School of Public Health and the IMM are identifying the genes responsible for variation in drug response. "

According to Boerwinkle, gene-environment interaction is the cornerstone of personalized medicine, which is the use of a patient's genotype or genetic profile to tailor medical care to an individual's needs. Such information could be used to decide which medication will work best.

Much research on gene-environment interaction is already underway at the UT Health Science Center, where researchers earned two of the initial awards presented through a program created by the National Institutes of Health to promote gene-environment interaction research.

Shine Chang, Ph.D., associate professor at the UT M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, who serves on the consortium training committee, said, "I am thrilled to be part of this highly innovative program to recruit and train researchers to discover and solve critical health problems in an entirely different way than we have in the past. We will help trainees develop skills and experience to bring together diverse perspectives to solve historically intractable health problems such as obesity and cancer that require super multidisciplinary approaches."


Contact: Robert Cahill
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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