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Public Health New NHGRI Branch Focuses on Genomics in Health and Society

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From last year’s chemical genomics initiative to its call for next-generation sequencing technology, NHGRI is making good on its push to tackle the broad new goals laid out in its blueprint for the future of the institute. The latest step continues that trend: at the end of last year, NHGRI established its Social and Behavioral Research Branch, a new unit within its intramural research division designed to study how genomics can be used in public health.

The research branch, headed up by Colleen McBride, a behavioral epidemiologist formerly at Duke University, got underway as early as last October but wasn’t officially announced until December. Its goal, unlike other genome institute research units, is not hard science but rather an examination of genomics in society. Among possible avenues of study, McBride says, are “what people need to know to accept or decline genetic testing, how we would develop counseling to help people cope with the information they receive, … how do people understand genetic risk, what’s the best way to communicate about it.”

For McBride, the beauty of the field is just how undeveloped it is. “Because the landscape is so wide open, there’s so much need for research that you almost can’t go wrong,” she says. Avoiding specifics, she notes that the institute has been generous to the tune of several million dollars for an opening budget, with a “commitment … that this will grow over time.”

Her own research has focused on public health intervention, such as encouraging people to “quit smoking, be more physically active, eat a healther diet,” she says. Genetics hadn’t really factored into her work until recently, and soon after that she stumbled across this opportunity with NHGRI.

“It’s very smart of the NHGRI leadership,” she says, “to be thinking this way. We don’t know exactly how these genetic discoveries are going to unfold, and the temptation is to say it’s way too early [for this kind of program].” But she believes the time is now: as the public hears more about genomics in the news and through various marketing channels, she argues, they’ll need resources to understand and handle genomic advances.

McBride is already emphasizing the importance of research into common genes that may be low-level predictors of disease susceptibility. When she arrived at NHGRI, “most of the research being done was with very high-risk families and with very rare genetic conditions.” She’s pushing to see more research into genes that could show potential for high blood pressure or cholesterol — genes that stand to have an impact on a greater swath of the population.

Her division, which currently has seven researchers — mainly bioethicists and genetic counselors — and plans for three or four more, will eventually be housed with the Social and Behavioral Science Center, another new NIH-wide initiative that will combine similar efforts across several institutes. That center, which McBride will also lead, is scheduled to open in January of 2005.

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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