Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

Scientists Without Borders

Premium

By Meredith W. Salisbury


The genome center at Duke University isn’t the largest by a long shot — nor is it the best funded. But where it stands out from other academic genome institutes is a difference that’s so ingrained, it’s right in the name: the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

And that’s precisely what lured Director Hunt Willard from his previous post at Case Western Reserve University three years ago. “My own thinking had come to a point where I began to realize that after the Human Genome Project it was no longer just science,” Willard says. There would be a need to get feedback from people with backgrounds in policy, law, psychology, even philosophy, he adds. “Duke was one of the only institutions … that was designed in a way that there are just no barriers at this campus. That was absolutely ideal and conducive to the kind of synthesis that we were trying to develop.” To that end, the genome institute has a toehold in each of Duke’s schools, including engineering, law, and public policy.

It didn’t start with such a broad bailiwick, though. The institute began with some intriguing ideas and Hunt Willard, and not much more. “You start up an institute like this,” he says, “and you realize you only have two things: some stationery and a blank piece of paper.” After a great deal of discussion around campus to figure out issues such as how much the institute would be geared toward medicine and how to get undergraduate students interested, Willard helped delineate the structure it would have. There would be six centers under the aegis of the IGSP — the first of which, Genome Ethics, Law & Policy, led by Robert Cook-Deegan, was already up and running when Willard arrived.

One major accomplishment in planning for the crosscutting nature of the institute came in an agreement with the Duke administration to change the rules of faculty advancement. “If you get into team science and high-level collaborative science, how do you deal with issues of authorship credit, shared grants, who’s going to get promoted?” Willard says. To encourage such kinds of projects at the IGSP, scientists can get credit for any effort they’re involved in so long as their contributions are properly documented. “Otherwise the cruel reality of promotion and tenure would’ve gotten in the way,” he adds.

Another feature that Willard credits not only for his interest in joining the institute but also for IGSP’s high profile on campus has been the involvement of undergraduate students. “That was a sea change for me,” he says. “I have spent all of my life at medical schools and not paying attention to the undergraduate world.” But as he discovered at Duke, undergrads are inherently more flexible than people who have trained in a particular field for a time, and they have proven adept at merging traditionally discrete disciplines, such as computer science and biology. “They don’t know yet that [those are] two different worlds. To them it’s one world,” Willard says.

Part of the push to draw undergrads into the institute involved establishing eight or nine new courses and adding genomics to the curriculum in every college. “Whatever they do, they keep bumping into genomics somewhere,” Willard says. The initiative has seen early success: more than half of students seeking research opportunities on campus list genomics as their number one preference, he says.

‘Nobody Has Turf’

That attention from the rest of the campus was no doubt amped up when Duke gave the IGSP two brand new buildings designed with collaborations and interdisciplinary research in mind. The space is all open to facilitate interaction, Willard says, and “our main building has a café and pub right downstairs. That sounds like one of those silly things, but it matters.” Other features include flat-screen monitors scattered throughout the institute that let people know what’s going on that day. “Wherever you are, you have the sense that ‘I’m part of the institute,’ not ‘I’m part of Joe’s lab,’” Willard says.

In addition to having a good mix of faculty within centers, the six centers that comprise the institute were designed to collaborate with each other. “This isn’t about turf,” Willard adds. “Nobody has turf.” The computational biology center, for instance, bridges structural biology and proteomics in addition to its bioinformatics mandate. Advances and research outcomes from the Center for Applied Genomics & Technology feed the genomic medicine center, which aims to take genome technology and figure out how to apply it directly to clinical practice.

Greg Wray directs the Center for Evolutionary Genomics, which works closely with David Goldstein, who leads the pharmacogenetics and population genomics center. The evolutionary genomics center houses the sequencing facilities — which currently rely on ABI 3730s but may get a 454 machine in the future — which many scientists use to generate phylogenetic trees to help understand speciation. But evolutionary biology in conjunction with the pharmacogenomics center produces results in the area of human genetic variation, linking particular gene expression studies with human origins as well as clinical phenotypes. The collaboration between those two groups has “already yielded a couple of papers and a joint grant proposal,” Wray says.

Meanwhile, other groups have teamed up as well. The Center for Applied Genomics & Technology, directed by Joe Nevins and home to the institute’s microarray faciliites, does a good deal of work with investigators outside of the IGSP. Chris Newgard, for example, has a proteomics and metabolomics team that’s not directly part of the institute but does quite a bit of research with institute members. Nevins says his faculty members are looking into large-scale cancer projects where they’re using molecular profiles — such as gene expression, metabolomic, and proteomic data — to help build predictive models of disease. Gene expression and proteomic profiles work particularly well together, Nevins says, because of aspects “that, let’s say, are affected by protein modification or stability that might not be affected on the [genetic side].”

That information then feeds into work with Geoff Ginsburg in the genomic medicine center, through which Nevins and Ginsburg are trying to apply research from cardiovascular disease and cancer “to find actual opportunities to bring it into clinical practice,” Nevins says. Willard says the genomic medicine center was designed “to be at the receiving end of the technological breakthroughs” from the rest of the centers. In addition to the usual scientists, it also houses healthcare economists and health system administrators, all aiming to get these advances to the clinic as fast as possible. “As genome centers or genome operations go around the country,” says Nevins, “probably one of the defining characteristics of what we’re doing here at Duke is the real focus on bringing genomics into clinical practice.”


Name: Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy

Host: Duke University

Director: Hunt Willard

Began: Technically launched in 2000, the genome institute really geared up when Willard joined in 2003.

Staff: Approximately 35 faculty members; about 200 employees and students

Funding stats: The institute began with about $100 million in funding from Duke. Currently, research expenses run about $20 million annually. Half of that comes from NIH funding, with the largest sources being NCI, NHLBI, NIGMS, and NHGRI.

Key research areas: applied genomics and technology; genome ethics, law, and policy; genomic medicine; bioinformatics and computational biology; models of human disease; population genomics and pharmacogenetics; evolutionary genomics

Core facilities: DNA microarrays; genotyping; RNAi; sequencing

The Scan

Two J&J Doses

Johnson & Johnson says two doses of its SARS-CoV-2 vaccine provides increased protection against symptomatic COVID-19, CNN reports.

Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Response in Kids

The Pfizer-BioNTech SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in a lower-dose format appears to generate an immune response among children, according to the Washington Post.

Chicken Changes to Prevent Disease

The Guardian writes that researchers are looking at gene editing chickens to help prevent future pandemics.

PNAS Papers on Siberian Dog Ancestry, Insect Reproduction, Hippocampal Neurogenesis

In PNAS this week: ancestry and admixture among Siberian dogs, hormone role in fruit fly reproduction, and more.