CORVALLIS, Ore. – A group of researchers led by a team at Oregon State University have received a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a Center of Excellence in Genomic Science where they will develop tools to modernize how medical knowledge about genetic conditions is captured, stored and exchanged.
The OSU team received the NIH grant at the same time the university is creating the Translational and Integrative Sciences Center in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where the research will be housed.
“The College of Agricultural Sciences is a leader in generating and understanding genomic, environmental and many other types of data,” said Alan Sams, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “We are excited to launch this new center which will revolutionize how data is put to work to advance understanding of the genetic improvement of crops, health and medicine, remote sensing, modeling environmental change, and artificial intelligence.”
Over the last 20 years, the genomic revolution has provided tremendous amounts of knowledge in nearly all scientific fields, especially genomic and environmental influences on health. But that data is complex, exists in different forms, and is distributed across different locations. It can also be incomplete or conflicting, or overwhelming to identify what parts are relevant to a question.
“The problems right now are not bottlenecks due to lack of data,” said Melissa Haendel, director of the Translational and Integrative Sciences Center and a principal investigator on the grant. “What we lack are tools to make effective use of that data for everyone; this new center is designed to address exactly this problem.”
Haendel will work with scientists and doctors at four institutions in the U.S. and U.K., including Julie McMurry, associate director of the center.
“Without unifying standards, the knowledge from the data that is being amassed just cannot reach its full potential,” McMurry said. “It can’t reach its full potential for patients. It can’t reach its full potential for doctors. And it certainly can’t reach its full potential for people trying to understand any underlying biological mechanisms.”
The researchers will use the emerging field of phenomics, which aims to encode, integrate and analyze the observable characteristics or traits (phenotypes) of an organism. Phenomics can be applied in a range of fields, but in this case the researchers are primarily focused on human disease and drawing insights from laboratory organisms.
Patients with rare diseases will specifically benefit from this research. Past research has found it takes an average of seven years to get a diagnosis for a rare disease, and even after all that time the diagnosis is often wrong. The problem is that there is not a systematic description of the disease, and the information that exists about it is scattered around different locations.
“The patient has to become the expert on their own condition because there are just too few experts available for such rare conditions,” said Anne Thessen, an assistant professor and senior researcher in the center.
This project aims to change that by organizing clinical and laboratory knowledge so that a doctor can access it and understand it without having to be an expert on the particular rare disease.
The timing of the new grant with the establishment of the new center will allow even deeper cross-collaboration and interdisciplinary work, bringing together scientists across OSU to use data sharing and data integration infrastructure to promote collaboration and facilitate discoveries that impact people, the environment and the economy. Haendel, McMurry, Thessen and Monica Munoz-Torres will lead the center.
Also supporting the center is a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the combined effects of the genome and environment on phenotypes in crop plants using innovative data science techniques.
The NIH grant also includes the following partners: Christopher Mungall, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dr. Chris Chute, Johns Hopkins University; Dr. Peter Robinson, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine; Damian Smedley, Queen Mary University of London; and Helen Parkinson and David Osumi-Sutherland, European Bioinformatics Institute.
About the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences: Through its world-class research on agriculture and food systems, natural resource management, rural economic development and human health, the College provides solutions to Oregon’s most pressing challenges and contributes to a sustainable environment and a prosperous future for Oregonians.