Database, funding keep U genetics in high standing

By By Deborah Rafferty

By Deborah Rafferty

Throughout its history, the U School of Medicine has grown to be one of the top research institutions in the nation, thanks in part to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the 1970s, U geneticists developed the Utah Population Database through an agreement with the LDS Church, which assisted family-based studies of hereditary influences on cancer, said Tom Parks, the U’s vice president of research.

UPDB is the only database of its kind in the United States, and few like it exist throughout the rest of the world, according to its website. U researchers have used the UPDB in hundreds of studies involving hereditary influences of various diseases, Parks said.

“We can really stay right on the forefront of research,” said Ray Gesteland, a U professor of human genetics. “We can compete for grants in a day when grants are hard to come by.”

With access to the UPDB, the U has the opportunity to influence the future of medical care, which could become more personalized to better identify and treat certain diseases, Gesteland said. The U has hired researchers to help develop a personalized health care program, in addition to expanding the capability of the UPDB, Parks said.

In October, the National Institutes of Health awarded the U 95 grants, totaling about $28 million, out of the 114 stimulus grants given to institutions in Utah, Parks said. The U also placed in the top 10 percent of institutions that received these grants, ranking just below MIT, he said. With these grants, the U is able to provide its researchers with better facilities and equipment to perform their experiments, Parks said.

Grants not only provide U researchers with the funding necessary for their studies, but also help the U attract researchers from other institutions, Parks said. For an institution to be a successful competitor in a field of research, it needs to be able to attract the most capable faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, Parks said. These researchers then have an increased chance of being successful when competing for grants to attract more students and fellows and to build better facilities, he said.

“Those highly capable scientists publish more important research papers, which get cited by other scientists and are the basis for faculty receiving awards and honors,” Parks said. “That is how the U has built, over a period of years, a strong reputation in genetics.”

The U is ranked in the top 30 public universities, with a distinction in the area of genetics, according to the U’s website.

“The University of Utah has had strong genetics research for many years and has built a strong reputation in two key areas of modern genetics: family-based human genetics and developmental genetics in animal models,” Parks said.

With Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi’s development of the “gene knockout” technology in mice, researchers have been able to create more than 500 mouse models of human diseases, Parks said. They do so by manipulating expression of genes to mimic genetic defects present in humans with the disease, he said.

Mice are not the only models used by geneticists at the U. Others include the fruit fly, nematode worm and flatworm, Parks said. These models can be easily manipulated to allow researchers to study development, cell biology and organ function, he said.
The U first started genetic research in the 1940s when the NIH awarded researchers a grant to study genetic disorders, including muscular dystrophy and kidney disease, Gesteland said.

The same research involving muscular dystrophy is still being conducted, he said. Researchers collected information from local families, which is part of the reason they were able to conduct this research, Gesteland said. Genealogy records kept by the families helped researchers track genetic traits through generations, he said.

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