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GEN News Highlights : Sep 6, 2013

NIH Funds Minority Disease Susceptibility Studies

Five research teams have received four-year awards through the Population Architecture Using Genomics and Epidemiology (PAGE) program of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) to study the genomics of disease susceptibility in ethnically diverse populations. The teams got more than $3.8 million in fiscal year 2013 and will receive nearly $14 million over four years in support, based on fund availability.

The projects aim to unravel the subtle variations in genetic makeup among groups—including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and others—that may account for differences in risks for conditions such as high blood pressure and high blood lipids, in addition to common diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Epidemiologist Lucia Hindorff, Ph.D., PAGE program director at NHGRI (part of the NIH), said in a statement that the PAGE program aims to investigate ancestrally diverse populations to gain a better understanding of how genetic factors such as SNPs influence susceptibility to disease. 

The current grantees are the second group of researchers to be funded through the PAGE program; the first group of four teams received funding back in July of 2008. This next phase of the PAGE program will reportedly focus on expanding the number of genetic variants analyzed to include those that are more rare and likely to be functional.

Much of this research to date including the initial round of PAGE grants has focused on whites. The new round of grants supports studies on groups of more diversified heritages.

"We wanted the second group of grants to focus on nonwhites because many tend to have a greater incidence of disease," Dr. Hindorff said. "There are often population-related biological pathways that contribute to disease, so looking at many traits and diseases together gives a more complete picture of the role of genetic variation."

The five groups being awarded grants (pending available funds) are:

  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, $3.1 million: Kari North, Ph.D., and her colleagues are collaborating in a program called CALiCo II, or Genetic Epidemiology of Causal Variants Across the Life Course Phase II. The partnership focuses on population-based studies aimed at uncovering potential connections between genetic variants and complex diseases and conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. The scientists will analyze the DNA collected from several of these large studies involving many Hispanic and African-American participants to pinpoint rare variants that might play roles in these diseases and conditions.
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, $2.9 million: The researchers will focus on minority populations to try to better understand the impact of rare variants on the development of common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and conditions such as inflammation, high glucose, insulin resistance, and abnormal lipid levels. They plan to study rare gene variations found in the genome's protein-coding regions and their association with these conditions and diseases in African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. To do this, the team will study participants from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a long-term national health study focused on strategies for chronic disease prevention. The scientists will compare the DNA of the WHI subjects to the DNA sequences of approximately 350,000 rare gene variants that are associated with these diseases and conditions. Charles Kooperberg, Ph.D., and Ulrike Peters, Ph.D., are the group's co-principal investigators.
  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, $3.1 million: Christopher Haiman, Ph.D., Loic Le Marchand, M.D., Ph.D., and their co-workers will examine the DNA from samples collected from the Multiethnic Cohort (MEC), a population-based study of more than 215,000 individuals ages 45 to 75 from California and Hawaii, which includes several racial/ethnic groups such as African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Hispanics, Native Hawaiians, and whites who are at varying risk for chronic diseases. They will study gene variants linked to a range of diseases and conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, common cancers, fasting insulin levels, high blood glucose, and high lipids. 
  • Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City, $2.9 million: Ruth Loos, Ph.D., and her colleagues will examine data from approximately 29,000 participants of the Mount Sinai BioMe Biobank, an ongoing resource based on electronic medical records from several ethnically diverse communities in New York City. The researchers aim to gain a greater understanding of the underlying causes of differences in disease incidence in these communities by studying the differences in genetic make-up in these groups that contribute to metabolic, heart, and kidney disorders. The new insights are expected to improve treatment of at-risk populations and may lead to reductions in health disparities among underserved minority populations.
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, $2.9 million: The PAGE coordinating center will serve as a centralized resource to help organize and manage research study logistics, as well as data gathering and analyses, and to facilitate collaborations. The coordinating center team includes statistical, population, and molecular geneticists; genetic epidemiologists; computer and information scientists; and biostatisticians. It will also serve as a data clearinghouse for results. Tara Matise, Ph.D., and Steven Buyske, Ph.D., are the teams co-principal investigators.