Genome Center tracking and sequencing - to make a difference in health care
Nathan Watt, a research associate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, closely monitors data on a next-generation sequencer in The American Genome Center at the university. This sequencing helps pinpoint genetic mutations that could serve as biomarkers, which can better predict disease risks and outcomes. TAGC is one of four academic genome centers in the U.S. and the only genome center in the federal system. (DoD photo by Sarah Marshall)
REsearchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) are on target to provide scalable molecular knowledge to researchers and physicians across the country that will help them treat the 1.6 million patients diagnosed with cancer each year, thanks to the university’s new genome center.
Equipped with state-of-the-art robotics and innovative technology, The American Genome Center (TAGC) at USU aims to study large populations by quickly sequencing thousands of genomes. This research looking at patients’ genes will help providers rapidly identify unique targets and pathways of cancer and of military-relevant disease, for better detection and intervention.
A genome is the complete set of DNA, and genome sequencing determines the exact order of the base pairs that make up a segment of DNA. These “bases” are letters “T” (thymine), “A” (adenine), “G” (guanine), or “C” (cytosine) – hence the center’s aptly-chosen acronym, TAGC. The human genome contains about 3 billion of these base pairs, which reside in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus of all of our cells.
TAGC, which is part of the university’s Collaborative Health Initiative Research Program, came to fruition over the last two years and began operating in March, making it one of only about two dozen such sites in the world. TAGC is only one of four academic genome centers in the U.S. and the only genome center in the federal system. TAGC’s first study involved sequencing the genomes from a set of Vietnam Veteran twins, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that some of the same genes responsible for PTSD, might also be associated with a risk for cardiovascular disease.
Researchers in TAGC hope to continue making such discoveries, now that they have the capability to sequence tens of thousands of genomes per year, explained Dr. Clifton Dalgard, core director of TAGC. The center is currently sequencing about 50 genomes per day, or around 1,000 per month, Dalgard said, and in its full capacity can sequence 18,000 per year.
“We’re in an era of precision medicine, and genome sequencing is a huge component of precise medicine,” Dalgard said.
“Every disease and health condition has a unique molecular basis, and impacts each person differently, so it’s important to analyze genomes in high volumes – this increases the odds of identifying observing recurrent genetic mutations common in the disease,” explained Dr. Matthew Wilkerson, Bioinformatics Director. “This helps pinpoint genetic mutations that could serve as biomarkers, which can better predict disease risks and outcomes. Also knowing which genetic variants associate with treatment response can then lead to more precise, customized treatment plans, Wilkerson said.
The process of genome sequencing is complex, involving many top-of-the-line robotics and high-end computers, Dalgard said. The center has four labs, working in sequence with one another, processing and preparing blood and tissue samples, before they make their way through next-generation sequencers. Several specialized computers output data from the billions of base pairs, which is then analyzed by the team of scientists.
Dalgard explained that having our own genome center is not only cost-efficient, but also allows for patient privacy by keeping data within the military health system, rather than sending it to an external source for analysis. It also adds to the university’s prestige, he said.
“We aim to be the DoD flagship center, capable of supporting all DoD programs and military treatment centers,” Dalgard added.
TAGC will also be supporting the Applied Proteogenomics Organizational Learning and Outcomes (APOLLO) consortium, a collaboration that’s part of White House Cancer Moonshot initiative to accelerate cancer research. The initiative, which is being led by Vice President Joe Biden, is intended to make more therapies available to an increased number of patients, while also improving the ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage. In particular, TAGC scientists will be looking at the expression of genes in a cohort of 8,000 patients with lung cancer.
“We’re very hopeful the center will influence military health care, as well as American health,” Dalgard said, adding, he is “honored and privileged to be a part of a project that will span the course of a few decades.”
Wilkerson echoed similar sentiments. “This is a tremendous opportunity, a unique alignment of advanced technologies and institutional leadership that will accelerate translational research,” he said.