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Gene by Gene, MD Anderson to Boost Aspiring Molecular Genetic Technologists' NGS Skills

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At the end of the summer, Houston-based genetic testing firm Gene by Gene will take on two aspiring molecular genetic technologists from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and give them a crash course in handling and analyzing human DNA using the latest technologies.

Gene by Gene announced this week that the firm will provide clinical instruction and training to students who are part of MD Anderson's Molecular Genetic Technology Program, a three-semester undergraduate course that aims to prepare students to be nationally certified as molecular genetic technologists. The course, which begins at the end of August, combines classroom lectures, laboratory demonstrations, and technical experience to teach students molecular genetics concepts. The collaboration with Gene by Gene will help bolster students' technical knowhow, particularly with the latest genomic technologies, such as next-generation sequencing.

Gene by Gene launched a DTC sequencing service earlier this year that only provides consumers with raw data from whole-genome sequencing and exome sequencing analysis, which is meant to be used for research purposes. It also provides, as a DTC service, ancestry and genealogy testing through its FamilyTreeDNA subsidiary.

Like Gene by Gene, MD Anderson's medical center is located in Houston, and, over the years, Gene by Gene has hired professionals who have received training at the center. "We have garnered so many technicians from the medical center, we are happy to be able to give back," Bennett Greenspan, Gene by Gene managing partner and FamilyTreeDNA CEO, told PGx Reporter.

The cancer center picked Gene by Gene to provide hands on molecular genetics training to a few of its students after visiting the company's lab some months ago. "They visited the lab and saw that we were a high-volume shop that's automated," Greenspan said, noting that Gene by Gene's lab extracts DNA from 600 samples a day.

Gene by Gene is aiming to provide practical experience to students who so far "just have text book experience" and "get them into a real-world environment," according to Greenspan.

Under the training program, Gene by Gene will pair each student with a senior molecular genetic technologist at the company to learn how to extract DNA from a biological sample. After learning how to extract DNA, students are "going to follow that DNA," which will be analyzed by one of three methods: conventional Sanger sequencing, microarray testing, or next-generation sequencing.

"In effect, we're going to show them what's old, what we consider to be intermediary … and then we're going to show them the process of next-generation sequencing," Greenspan said.

Molecular genetic technologists are professionals who study inherited diseases, as well as understand the interplay of genetics in drug response and disease pathology. The majority of graduates of MD Anderson's Molecular Genetic Technology Program will be employed by diagnostic molecular laboratories at major hospitals, commercial reference labs, and universities. Because these professionals will be at the forefront of genomic medicine advances, as complex NGS technologies become more readily used in research and mainstream healthcare, they will need to be comfortable using such cutting-edge methods.

Gene by Gene is currently using Illumina's MiSeq platform to conduct whole-genome sequencing related to analysis of mitochondrial DNA. Moving to NGS from Sanger sequencing has enabled the firm to analyze a higher volume of samples and deliver test results to customers faster, according to Greenspan. "We spent three months doing rigorous comparisons of Sanger sequencing to next-generation sequencing, working with our IT department so we could make those calls using NGS software," he said.

Moving to the NGS platform has enabled Gene by Gene to produce 10 times more results than it was with Sanger sequencing. "We think that NGS is really important for these [students] to know," Greenspan noted. "Wherever they end up going, they're going to be able to intelligently discuss the latest [technologies] in the industry."

After taking the course, Greenspan hopes that the students will be able to get to the point where they will understand why the company has set up a pipeline to conduct NGS. "The real goal in education is to make people ask questions," he said. "Obviously, we want them to ask the right questions."

MD Anderson, like many other academic cancer centers, is spearheading research to advance genomically guided treatments for the disease. Last year, it launched the Moon Shots Program, a multi-disciplinary effort to speed advances in cancer treatments. One major focus of the program will be on discovering personalized treatment strategies and using patients' molecular information to advance drugs and tests.

Separately, MD Anderson's Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy last year launched a program in which researchers employ various NGS technologies to identify the cancer mutation genes that patients harbor and use that information to place them in clinical trials and identify treatments to which they are most likely to respond (CSN 10/10/2012).

Aware that medical research and healthcare products are increasingly moving towards genomic analysis and technologies, Peter Hu, director of MD Anderson's Molecular Genetic Technology Program, felt that the education of his students also had to move in this direction. MD Anderson has been teaching students about advanced genomic technologies in the classroom for the last three years. However, the hands-on coursework focusing on NGS, through collaborations like the one with Gene by Gene, is a new component of the program.

The program is among the half dozen courses offered for aspiring molecular genetic technologists that are accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences. Each year, MD Anderson's course enrolls between 29 and 35 students, who are matched to different laboratories for their clinical work based on their interests.

According to Hu, the accredited courses for molecular genetic technologists must abide by certain NAACLS curriculum standards, which currently don't require that students have experience with NGS technologies. However, MD Anderson has the opportunity to incorporate that into the program's curriculum, Hu told PGx Reporter. "We see that there is going to be a need, as the prevalence [of NGS technologies] is increasing around the world."

After graduating from the MD Anderson program, interns are eligible to take a national certification exam given by the American Society of Clinical Pathology. The practical experience offered to students at Gene by Gene would better prepare these interns to take that exam, Greenspan hopes.

"In general, it is our goal to ensure that their practical field experience is as good as their classroom experience," he said. The gap between professionals' book knowledge and practical skills has been a challenge for Gene by Gene when the firm has hired molecular genetics professionals fresh out of school.

"What we've found as we hire people who are typically out of school [is that] they may have the classroom [knowledge] but they're a little bit afraid of pipettes," he said. "We want to break that real quick, because anywhere they go they can't just be comfortable putting a box of chips on a robot. That's not enough."

The deadline to apply for MD Anderson's Molecular Genetic Technology Program was April 1, and instruction begins at the end of the summer.

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