At the 4th National Conference on Genomics and Public Health in Maryland this week, the CDC's Nicole Dowling said that, despite its slow nature, the research of human genomics has a place in public health preparedness and battling and containing outbreaks of infectious disease. Being prepared to confront health threats requires effective surveillance and rapid response to outbreaks and environmental disasters, Dowling said. In this context, research into human genomics is an integral part of that equation — it allows public health officials and researchers to work together to maximize their resources, enhance their knowledge, inform policy, and prepare for the next outbreak. Rapidly changing 'omics technologies — Dowling says she includes proteomics, epigenomics, and all emerging 'omics here — also play a role as they allow for an efficient infrastructure to collect, sequence, and analyze data needed to identify and control public health threats. By leveraging new technology and informatics, the banking and analysis of human samples can be conducted as part of public health investigations, Dowling said. In addition, tracking the genomics of a pathogen allows health officials to monitor things like microbial resistance and by studying human genomics, they can trace how a disease works on a host, why some patients have different reactions to certain infectious diseases, and how existing gene mutations may influence the path the disease takes. As an example, Dowling pointed to work being done at the CDC to study influenza in children to figure out why some children die, even without additional health complications.
But the work that's being done isn't enough, Dowling said. It has become necessary to reach out to other agencies around the world and conduct global collaborative work — sharing data and analyzing information on diseases of international import. Since 2001, about 40,000 studies have been published on human genome epidemiology, with the number steadily growing. Although the number of studies of human genome epidemiology in infectious disease is much smaller, the numbers have increased at the same rate as human genome epidemiology studies overall. And although the US has, until now, published the most in this area, China has recently caught up and surpassed the US, making international collaboration even more important, Dowling suggested. In the end, success requires a cultural shift to include human genomics in public health preparedness, and global collaboration, she added.