Tuesday, August 12, 2008

UA Receives $1.4 Million NIH Training Grant to Study Genes, the Environment, and Human Health

[Source: Deborah Daun, BIO5] - The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded The University of Arizona (UA) a five-year, $1.4 million grant to create a multidisciplinary "training ground" that will give student researchers the expertise to better understand how genes and the environment interact to affect human health—skills that could one day improve our ability to treat and prevent diseases such as diabetes and asthma.

The NIH-funded HuGER (Human Genes and the Environment Research) grant draws on the UA's expertise in multiple key areas: environmental and public health sciences and engineering; population and functional genomics/genetics; and computational biology and statistics/bioinformatics. Seventeen faculty members from six UA colleges will train and mentor the program's students, initially recruiting four graduate and three post-doctoral students by 2009.

The project is a natural fit for the UA, which has a long history of collaboration across departments; and for BIO5, which was created to facilitate collaborations. "We're really well placed because of the strengths that already exist on campus," says co-principal investigator Terrence J. Monks, professor and head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the College of Pharmacy, as well as a BIO5 member. Participating colleges include the College of Pharmacy, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Medicine, the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences, and the College of Public Health. BIO5 will administer HuGER, which is co-funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Human Genome Institute. The new training program seeks to build upon the established knowledge in exposure biology and high throughput genomics to produce a new generation of scientists who are equally at home with genomics and the environmental health sciences, and who can seamlessly interact with scientists from both areas.

Now that the human genome has been sequenced, there's a huge amount of genetic data available, Monks explains. "The question is, how do we use that knowledge? How can it improve our diagnosis and prevention of disease?" Since the environment plays a key role in disease development and progression—as does genetic predisposition—understanding disease susceptibility requires understanding the interaction between genetics and the environment, as well as competence and comfort in interpreting large data sets. Researchers cannot merely be competent within the borders of their own fields, Monks says; they need to gain expertise and fluency in multiple disciplines.

While the specific health issues studied through HuGER will be determined by the students and their faculty mentors, the program has the potential to shed light on any number of complex diseases that exhibit a mix of genetic and environmental causes, including diabetes, asthma, and cancer. "We'll be training students to frame the correct questions by giving them a background in all the right disciplines," Monks says, "and then training them to weave those disciplines together so they can apply the strengths of each to large population-based and patient-based studies.”

"Bringing in dollars to educate students is also beneficial to the state," Monks says, especially in a time of limited federal budgets, which makes efforts to attract biomedical research funds extremely competitive.

"Getting folks to work across disciplines for the common good is advantageous to the wider community," he adds. "By unraveling the interplay between genes and the environment, we're unraveling a piece of a puzzle that can help improve human health."

Contact: Deborah Daun, Office 626-2059, Cell 247-7440, ddaun@email.arizona.edu

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