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The Institute that Could: Jul 14, 2008


The National Institute of Genomic Medicine in Mexico holds a lot of promise. A new building is under construction — and almost complete — to house Mexico's burgeoning genomic medicine institute. Created by a 2004 mandate from the Mexican Congress, the institute is building itself up to be a center of clinical genomics not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America and globally.

After a partnership among the government's health department, the national university, the national council for science and technology, and the Mexican Health Foundation settled on creating a genomic institute, there was a national contest to choose a director-general. Gerardo Jimenez's proposal for an institute included not only plans for world-class science with high-tech support, but also ways to translate that research into products — all the while keeping an eye on the ethical, legal, and social implications of performing genomic research. It caught the attention of the board of governors, and today Jimenez heads up the institute.

Also part of the vision for the institute is to give back to Mexican society and ultimately improve public health in Mexico, and across Latin America. Ongoing research includes the Mexican HapMap project, as well as studies of age-related macular degeneration and pharmacogenomics. "It was created with the aim of developing scientific research around the human genome that always includes or [is] oriented to solving national health problems," says Jimenez. "This is mostly a translational research institute where the research projects are not only approved by their scientific interest but also by their impact in national health as well as their impact in intellectual property."

The institute, says Jimenez, is well poised to establish Mexico as an important force in the genomic world. "[It is] the only center in Latin America, the whole Latin America, that has not only a national program to develop a program for genomic medicine, but an institution under which roof contains all this technology and human resource," he says. "That has positioned our institute globally to be the most important institute in emerging economies worldwide."

Irma Zolezzi, a research associate at the institute, says that the institute is changing the research environment in Mexico. "From the beginning, it was clear that it was going to [take] a lot of money to do big efforts, to try to change the research that was being done in Mexico before in terms of genetics and genomics."

HapMap and more

Though only three years old, the institute has its hands full with large, population-based studies. "People in Mexico are open to research," Zolezzi says. "People are very enthusiastic."

One large-scale project underway is what's been termed the Mexican HapMap project. Through this, researchers hope to uncover genes in the Mexican population that contribute to disease. They are sequencing and genotyping both mestizo — people of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry — and indigenous populations from different states across Mexico. "[We're] trying to evaluate genetic heterogeneity and genetic diversity in Mexicans, evaluate how it will affect genetic association studies in Mexicans," say Zolezzi, who is working on the project.

So far, they have completed 1 million SNPs per individual, and they plan to ramp up that coverage to more than a million and a half by the end of next year. "We have produced a haplotype map compared to the HapMap worldwide, compared to different regions within Mexico, and compared to indigenous populations," Jimenez says. "That work has led to much more sophisticated analysis capabilities in genome-wide association studies that we have started."

One of those genome-wide association studies is run by Zolezzi, focusing on macular degeneration. "We wanted to test how a GWAS related to macular degeneration would work in Mexicans," she says. That study, she adds, is on its way to be reviewed for publication. It also sparked her interest in ocular diseases; she is now expanding her scope to look for the genetic causes of glaucoma, among others. She is also following up on the GWAS with resequencing projects. "I am doing replications of some signals observed in that first genome-wide association study in an independent group of patients," Zolezzi says. "And I am also doing resequencing of some genes because there were variants of some genes associated with macular degeneration ... that we are not observing because they are very low frequency in our population. I'm looking for others."

There are several other resequencing projects following up on other GWAS studies. "This is a major effort," says Jimenez.

Still other scientists are working on a pharmacogenomics study. This project is associating SNPs in the Mexican population to drug metabolism. While examining this, researchers at the institute uncovered novel genes related to metabolism from samples from indigenous populations. "Right now we are not only discovering them, but we're also validating them in vitro and moving down to clinical trial for the Mexican population," Jimenez says.

Recruiting people

One of the impediments to getting the institute running at full tilt has simply been manpower. To recruit people to join the center, Jimenez has been searching within Mexico and abroad. So far, he's managed to increase the ranks from a dozen in 2004 to 154 this year. He says the goal is to get that up to 450 in the next couple of years.

"One of the most important challenges has been human resources. We have the technology, but it has taken us time to get people here to work with us that have experience and knowledge of genetics and genomics," says Zolezzi.

Jimenez is also working on retaining those people recruited to the institute, but acknowledges that salaries in Mexico may pale in comparison to offers abroad. "We have to find mechanisms to compensate that difference and make it attractive to people to come over, particularly to Mexicans who are abroad and haven't had a chance to return to our country with a good opportunity," he says.

"Some Mexicans are being educated abroad and they haven't finished their programs, or they are working on their postdoctoral training somewhere else. It's taking us a little time to really bring them here," Zolezzi adds.

Within the institute, Jimenez has set up both graduate and undergraduate courses in genomic medicine, offering three courses to train upcoming scientists. In 2002, there were six students; last year there were 300. "Not only that, but we are broadcasting our lectures, journal club sessions, and courses to over 20 states in Mexico. This is the kind of interaction we have with 20 of the 32 states of Mexico," Jimenez says.

The institute is reaching out globally too. It has multiple collaborative agreements in the United States — at TGEN, the Broad Institute, and Johns Hopkins, among others — as well as in Canada, Europe, and Asia. In one study, the Mexican institute is working with the Genome Institute of Singapore on a pan-Pacific genotyping project. The Singapore center is genotyping people in Asia, from Singapore and Korea, and Jimenez's institute is crisscrossing Mexico and Latin America. "Mexico is positioning itself through the Institute of Genomic Medicine worldwide in the genomic area and in the process of translational research to really have an impact in the healthcare of the Mexican population," Jimenez says.

Fast Facts

National Institute of Genomic Medicine
Mexico City, Mexico

Director-General: Gerardo Jimenez
Began: Established in 2004
Staff: 154
Research: Population genetics, diabetes/obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, pharmacogenomics
Core facilities: Sequencing, genotyping, microarrays, supercomputing, proteomics
Expansion plans: A new 646,000-square-foot facility on 100 acres to open later this year

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