UConn Creates Innovative Institute for Systems Genomics

A research lab. (Stock image)

A research lab. (Stock image)

Drawing upon its research strengths and planned collaboration with genomics expert The Jackson Laboratory, the University of Connecticut has established an innovative Institute for Systems Genomics that has the potential to raise the University’s stature as a global leader in genomics research.

The purpose of the Institute is to establish a world-class research and training program in genomics and personalized medicine, build relationships between the academic and corporate communities, and encourage students to pursue careers in genomics studies. The goal is for the Institute to be first in class in promoting scientific excellence, supporting scientific discovery, and developing innovative educational experiences.

“This Institute gives the University of Connecticut another wonderful opportunity to become internationally prominent in the field of genomics, a discipline that is being recognized more and more for its importance in clinical medicine,” explains Marc Lalande, professor and chairman of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the UConn Health Center, who was appointed chair of the university-wide planning committee to create the Institute and who will serve as its director.

Collaboration across disciplines

Joining in this interdisciplinary venture are faculty representatives from nine UConn schools: Medicine, Dental Medicine, Nursing, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Pharmacy, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Education, and Social Work. The commitment of The Jackson Laboratory, based in Maine, to build a $1.1 billion research facility on the Health Center’s campus served as a springboard for the collaboration.

“Every aspect of human sustainability, from health to food to the environment, is based on genomics,” explains Edison Liu, CEO of The Jackson Laboratory. “The Institute for Systems Genomics at the University of Connecticut will provide the intellectual critical mass needed to propel The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine to the front of the pack.”

The University’s interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Mun Choi, emphasizes the transformative scope “that will bring together UConn faculty and The Jackson Laboratory to develop innovative research that will transform human, animal, and environmental genomics. In the coming year, we’ll establish strong support for the Institute through faculty hiring and the appointment of the John & Donna Krenicki Professorship in Genomics & Personalized Medicine,” he says.

The Senior Advisory Council of the Institute includes Liu, other Laboratory representatives, and University vice presidents, including Frank Torti, executive vice president for health affairs at the UConn Health Center.

Genomics research offers a pathway toward conquering disease by learning how the human genome works. Genomics involves the study of all of an organism’s genes, and using that information to make a diagnosis or develop a treatment or cure. This allows doctors to tailor medication and treatments to a person’s specific needs, resulting in “personalized medicine” for each individual.

World class research and training

The Institute will start its work in four major areas. The first will be to establish a new Ph.D. program in computational genomics and biology, and to explore the establishment of an undergraduate degree in genomics as well.

The second area involves educating the general public about the importance of genomics research. “We want to produce tools to inform the public about genomics, for their personal health and also as a way to get young people interested in careers in this field,” Lalande says. “In addition, we want to provide educational opportunities for primary care providers, since genomics is becoming such a big part of clinical medicine.”

A third focus for the Institute is to foster research in genomics, across UConn’s campuses and beyond, by bringing researchers together to discuss areas of mutual interest and to develop grant applications for focused studies. A two-day symposium in September kicked off the collaborative effort that led to the establishment of the Institute and has already sparked interest and awareness of this objective.

Grant funding would build upon the success that the University has already had in securing genomics research dollars, such as the recent $9.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to researcher Brenton Graveley to expand scientific understanding of the role that the human genome plays in health and disease.

A fourth area of priority for the Institute is to foster economic development within Connecticut. In addition to improving human health, genomics research can provide a considerable financial boost to the state, such as spinoff companies that would bring tax revenue and create jobs.

“The Institute fits perfectly with UConn’s expanding role as a major source of economic innovation and job growth in the region,” says Mary Holz-Clause, vice president for economic development. “The kinds of relationships that will be forged between UConn researchers and the business community demonstrate how we’re partnering with the private sector to enhance our mission as a world-class university.”

Lalande concurs. “The Institute for Systems Genomics,” he says, “is the vehicle to foster collaboration between UConn and The Jackson Laboratory in genomics research and education and advance the overall mission of Bioscience Connecticut.”