To find out more about clinical trials, medicine, and their links to genomics, Genome Technology caught up with Claude Hughes, who recently joined RTI International as chief medical officer and vice president of the Consortium for Molecular Epidemiology, Genomics, Environment, and Health. Hughes was previously executive director of medical and scientific services at Quintiles, a contract research organization for pharmaceutical companies. He says the switch from a CRO to RTI enables him to “continue being engaged in human clinical trials … research but also lets me get closer again to my basic science roots.”
Hughes spoke with GT’s Meredith Salisbury. The following is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length.
Genome Technology: Can you tell us more about the consortium you’ll be leading at RTI?
Claude Hughes: We’re calling ourselves the Consortium for Molecular Epidemiology, Genomics, Environment, and Health. That represents in some ways what I see as the breadth of expertise that RTI possesses: epidemiology on one end; very analytical approaches to genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics -- that’s the next word; a longstanding history of focus on environmental chemicals and their impact on health.
For us it provides an internal vehicle to put different types of expertise together and view the interaction of these components on a regular basis in some innovative ways. So for example the notion of gene-environment interactions or gene-environment relationships has been extant in the scientific community for many years: the milieu exterior must impact milieu interior. That’s a very old notion. But we now have tools that let us be more precise in looking at those interactions. We view the environment as being an entire spectrum of things: it is environmental contaminants, xenobiotics, manmade chemicals in the environment. But it is much more -- it is also pharmaceutical agents that we introduce into our bodies; it is dietary exposures to naturally occurring chemicals. Clearly there are health benefits that accrue from eating plants that contain a whole array of phytochemicals, but why those effects seem to be applicable in some populations and not others is not clear.
GT: From your own perspective, do you believe that genomics and related technologies are having an impact in the clinic right now?
Hughes: Is there a robust impact at this time? I’d say not yet. I think it’s forthcoming. As one starts to look at some clarification about what the human genome is really like -- so SNPs are now becoming reasonably well understood, but again, new studies showing variation in copy number of genes in the human genome and that kind of report -- I think can lead us to understanding in particular orphan diseases. I think that that’s the sort of linkage that will be very valuable in sorting out the occurrence of those phenomena.
In order to tease those things out, I believe that we will find variation in copy number to be important in a lot of those, and I see great potential there for understanding of the underlying mechanisms of those diseases which in turn equips us to intervene pharmacologically or in other ways.
GT: In terms of technologies, are there specific types of platforms that you see as most promising for making a difference in human health?
Hughes: The technologies we have here that are dancing quite nicely, and that I think the institute broadly is very proud of, is work in proteomics that’s mass spec-related and metabolomics. We will certainly take advantage of those in a broader way of developing new biomarkers for diseases and biomarkers for disease response. My own background is oriented toward microscopy and quantitative histochemical methodologies, so I hope we can add that because there are a whole set of cellular markers and advanced optical techniques that can be expanded and linked as another set of biomarkers.