Over her 12 years as a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Elaine Ostrander managed to elevate dog genomics from the level of curiosity to serious contender in the realm of comparative genomics. Along the way, she helped establish maps of dog genes and markers, and ultimately aided in the production of a white paper in 2002 that paved the way for the draft sequencing of the boxer genome completed last summer. Not incidentally, her work also helped identify genes associated with kidney cancer — they happen to be the same in dogs and humans. “I loved every minute at Fred Hutchinson,” she says of her time in Seattle.
But now Ostrander is on to something new. As the new head of cancer genetics at NHGRI, the first permanent group leader since Jeff Trent left to lead the Translational Genomics Research Institute in 2002, Ostrander has plans to revamp the portfolio of the cancer genetics branch, and to hire a significant number of new researchers to replace those who left with Trent. “To build the branch with my vision — it’s a great opportunity,” she says.
Specifically, Ostrander says she’s looking to hire a half dozen researchers with expertise in model organism research — but not necessarily in just the traditional model organisms, like fly and mouse. In addition, she’s interested in scientists “whose worldview or program reaches out to people who are interested in behavioral science and behavioral modification,” she says. Identifying particular sets of alleles that exacerbate cancer risk given an environmental exposure is one example of how cancer geneticists can collaborate with epidemiologists. The result, she adds, would be “to take it to the next step in cancer prevention, whether that be dietary changes or smoking cessation.”
In her own lab, Ostrander plans to continue her work in dog genetics, with the other half of her group focusing specifically on prostate and breast cancer. As for her work with the dog, she says the genomics tasks are largely complete, leaving her group free to pursue more directed research, including mapping morphology, cancer, and other disease genes in dogs. “Why are big dogs big and little dogs little?” she asks. “They start out almost the same size as puppies and yet in nine months they differ in size by 40-fold. So what are those checkpoints, what are those regulators that turn on and off? We’re interested in finding those pathways and then seeing very quickly what they have to do in human health and biology.”
— John S. MacNeil