Engineering Partners in Genomics Institute

In June, Bar Harbor, ME-based genetics powerhouse The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) broke ground on a $2B ($1.1B from JAX; $865k from the state of Connecticut) state-of-the-art Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine at the UConn Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington, CT.  In response, UConn is establishing a new entity, tentatively named the Institute of Systems Genomics, to provide a framework for collaborative research, educational and commercialization efforts aimed at advancing new frontiers of gene-based personalized medicine.

During two days in early September, over 300 researchers from the UConn Storrs campus, the UCHC and JAX came together for a Genomics Symposium that included presentations and discussions, in a first step of the unfolding partnership. The event kicked off with thoughtful remarks by UConn President Susan Herbst, School of Medicine Dean Frank M. Torti, and Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Edison Liu.

Dr. Torti, who is also the UCHC’s Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, anticipates many economic benefits, in addition to research opportunities, will unfold as the partnership develops.   “This initiative will enable Connecticut to assume a position of global leadership in developing new medical treatments tailored to each patient’s unique genetic fingerprint,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by JAX’s Dr. Liu, who said “We can build one of the most innovative and forward-thinking genomics programs in the country, because we’re starting from scratch.” In his slide presentation, Dr. Liu also speculated that the partnership has “the best chance of integrating the critical pipeline, because we have all the components – genomics, computational analytics, cell biology and clinical medicine – and can show that investment in fundamental science can affect human health and human sustainability.”

Among the symposium organizers was Dr. Dong-Guk Shin, professor of Computer Science & Engineering and director of the Bioformatics & Biocomputing Center (BIBCI); Dr. Michelle Williams,  Associate Dean for the Life Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Dr. Marc Lalande, professor and Chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology, and Associate Dean for Research Planning and Coordination at the School of Medicine as well as head of the UConn Stem Cell Working Group.

Across the two-day symposium, researchers discussed a dizzying array of genomics-related topics, from horizontal gene transfer and the role of chromosomes as oncogenic organizers to RNA editing, epigenetic mechanisms and mouse genome informatics.

Engineering faculty will contribute expertise in applying systems biological methods to optimize drug design and therapy; high throughput gene sequencing via efficient algorithms and genetic linkage analysis using tools such as motif searching; use of computational tools for rapid data analysis, modeling and database development; bioinformatics for genomics-guided immunotherapy; living-cell assay systems for control of cell culture microenvironments; metabolomics and metabolic engineering; image acquisition, analysis and computation; and other areas.

Another major function of the Institute of Systems Genomics will be to train a highly skilled next-generation workforce versed in both biomedical and computational sciences. As the Institute builds momentum, UConn Engineering will play a key role in helping to quickly transform research findings into commercial products and processes.


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