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NIEHS Funds Harvard Investigator Developing Gene-Environment Bioinformatics Tools for Cardiovascular Disease Risk

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has provided a Pathway to Independence Award that may total nearly $1 million to Harvard Medical School investigator Chirag Patel to fund his research into the interaction of environmental and genetic factors involved in cardiovascular diseases.

Patel, a research associate in the HMS Center for Biomedical Informatics, plans to examine data from environment-wide association studies (EWAS) and genome-wide association studies to find out if and how environmental and genetic factors act together to increase disease risk.

The goal driving the Pathway to Independence awards is to support new and talented postdoctoral investigators, and to help them get their research careers on track to receive stable, independent funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources. The program funds two phases, including a two-year mentored phase that will allow investigators to receive guidance as they gain more training and publish some of their results, and a three-year phase that will fund their research as independent scientists.

This NIEHS award will provide Patel with around $120,000 per year for the first two years, and then it may provide up to $250,000 per year for the following three years. Funding in the second phase is based on performance.

Patel's advisory committee includes experts in bioinformatics and environmental health sciences, including Professor John Ioannidis and Associate Professor Atul Butte, both of Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley Professor Stephen Rappaport.

Patel plans to apply bioinformatics methods to epidemiological data to identify interacting environmental exposures and genetic variants in cardiovascular risk traits, such as high blood pressure, and then to design an epidemiological study to test the clinical utility of using these tools to predict risk for coronary heart disease.

He plans to use data from established population-based studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including community-based health surveys and longitudinal cohorts.

Patel told GenomeWeb Daily News in an e-mail today that he wants to create a search engine for environmental exposures that are associated with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which, like other complex diseases, "arise[s] out of an interplay between genes and environment."

"We are getting really good at searching for genetic variants that influence disease risk [through GWAS] … but we lack a comparable 'search engine' for environmental exposures," he said.

Once this search engine is created, Patel aims to look at both genetic and environmental factors to study how they influence disease as a system.

"For example, current GWAS do not consider environmental exposures when searching for genetic variants associated with disease. In the second part of the project, we will implement a computational method to search for 'interacting' genetic and environmental factors that have emerged from GWAS and EWAS in cardiovascular disease," Patel explained.

This component of Patel's research, called an integrative genetic variant by EWAS, or GxEWAS, will seek to identify interacting environmental factors and genetic variants associated with high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.