Innovative Science Programs: Genomics and Systems Biology (joint with the College)
Breakthroughs in genomics will revolutionize medicine and the life sciences in the coming years as researchers perfect the disciplines necessary to draw medically relevant conclusions from the tidal wave of data created by analysis of human genetic codes. Genomics and Systems Biology were chosen as a priority growth area in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s 2007 Strategic Plan because they will provide the tools scientists need as they approach an understanding of the complex systems of the human body down to the level of genes and molecules. Progress in this area is moving at blinding speed, with tremendous opportunities for institutions that quickly marry their expertise in disease areas with genomic analysis.
After more than 10 years and billions of dollars invested, the Human Genome Project reported in 2003 that it had produced the first “complete” list of DNA sequences that make up a single human being’s gene code (that person’s “genome”). Each human’s genetic code consists of about three billion chemical “letters.” Amazingly, another single human genome was sequenced four years later, in 2007, in just two months and at a cost of just two million dollars, more than a thousand times less expensive than the first genome. Intense, international competition is underway seeking to design even more high-speed, low-cost genome sequencing technology that can capture and compare the varying genomes of millions of people. That process is already underway, and medical researchers are now becoming capable of identifying genetic variations present in populations prone to develop major diseases. Precision design of new therapies tailored for each patient’s individual genomic profile will follow.
Systems biology is a new science that emerged as a consequence of both the quantity and complexity of available genomic data, and the need to integrate genomic information with other kinds of data, say from patients’ medical records. Where past researchers would seek to understand complex biological systems by breaking them into their pieces, the emerging approach is to study entire systems by creating computer simulations of their behavior (e.g., sets of genes involved in tumor formation).
Along with the promise of these disciplines, they were chosen as part of the new strategic plan because they are already areas of strength at the Medical Center. Researchers in the Aab Cardiovascular Research Institute, for example, have used such approaches to define sections of our genetic code that tell genes where, when and to what degree to "turn on," some of which may be involved in heart failure and in vascular diseases like atherosclerosis. At the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, scientists have found that some cancer-related genes may bring about disease by influencing the behavior of large swaths of related genes.
Quickly expanding the Medical Center's capabilities to conduct high-speed genomic and systems studies will be central to its research competitiveness, and its ability to recruit the best researchers from the national pool. With this goal in mind, the strategic plan calls for the establishment of a new Center for Genomics and Systems Biology to coordinate the growth of related research efforts, to build new computing capacity and to garner funding for high-throughput gene sequencing equipment.
Genomics and Systems Biology
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