HudsonAlpha’s leadership in genomics attracts national conference

single-meta-cal March 13, 2018

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will welcome more than 150 scientists and clinicians from across the nation to Huntsville for the second Genomic Medicine Conference March 26-28, 2018. The conference is designed to advance knowledge on the application of genomic technologies to clinical care. Genomic technologies, scientific advances, case studies and social and ethical impacts are just a few of the topics to be discussed.

Neil Lamb, PhD, HudsonAlpha’s Vice President for Educational Outreach, is a keynote speaker and is overseeing the content of the conference. We spoke with Dr. Lamb about the upcoming event, the importance of science education, and his “big picture” view for the future.

The first question I usually get is: What is genomics? Genomics starts with DNA. Every living creature contains DNA. Genomics involves the analysis of all the DNA in an organism.

We study a genome by sequencing, or spelling out, this genetic code. In the case of humans, we have six billion ‘letters’ that make up our genome. Each of us differs from each other by a few million ‘letters’ of DNA.  These differences determine why our eyes are a certain color, whether we are lactose tolerant or not, and whether we may be a carrier of a specific disease.

We were first to focus on outer space. Now, we’re focusing on inner space and what this technology means for the future.”

As we have learned more about the genome and how to interpret the information it contains, we’ve realized that we can make certain predictions with certainty about an individual’s health. There are diseases that we can identify through genetics. Huntington Disease, Down Syndrome, Fragile-X, Sickle Cell Anemia… we have been testing for these for years.

Other diseases have genetic risk factors. A specific mutation in the BRCA1 gene, for example, is known to greatly increase the risk of developing breast cancer, but doesn’t guarantee cancer will occur.

Then there are studies that have identified genetic changes, or variants, that are linked to an increased risk of more complex diseases such as hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and heart conditions. Most of these disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors, many of which are still unknown.

Genomic medicine still in early days

The amount of knowledge we have acquired through science has led to a revolution, so to speak, in clinical care. Physicians are increasingly utilizing genomics in their diagnosis and care of patients. But these are still the early days, and genomics has not yet been a significant part of training in medical school.

The Genomic Medicine Conference seeks to fill that gap – or at least start filling that gap. It is a three-day conference that will include content on genomic sequencing and analysis and how those tools work, clinical applications for genomic testing, case studies in which real patients have been helped, and an overview of the ethical and social ramifications of doing this.

It’s important to note that your genes are not just yours. You share them with family members, and what patients may learn about themselves through genomic testing may also be relevant to those family members, particularly their own children. So ethically, we need to be intentional about how we practice this type of medicine. We have a great team of bioethicists addressing those deeper questions in one of the conference sessions. We have worked with the Medical Foundation of Alabama to get the conference certified to offer CME credits to physicians, so there’s another reason to come.

‘Huntsville is the perfect place’

Huntsville is the perfect place to host this conference. This city and its people have a gift for grasping the future. We were first to focus on outer space. Now, we’re focusing on inner space and what this technology means for the future. We are finding there is a real thirst for this knowledge.

People may not realize it, but they are leveraging their knowledge of genetics and genomics in their everyday decisions – from the conversations with their doctor to the decisions they make at the market.  At HudsonAlpha, genomic literacy is one of our missions. Our educational outreach program offers programs for students of nearly all ages, including lifelong learners.

We are just wrapping up our Biotech 201 session for 2018, which sold out in 15 minutes.

The topic for this year was “Can Biotech…” and we addressed questions including, “Can Biotech help solve crimes?” “Can Biotech help you lose weight?” If you weren’t able to make it, we’ve put all the sessions online at Biotech 201.

We’re excited to host the conference and to interact with all the scientists and clinicians who attend, each of whom brings a unique viewpoint and experience set in the field. We want them to enjoy our campus, take a walk on the double helix pathway at McMillian Park, have a great meal downtown or at Bridge Street, and explore Huntsville while they are here.

The Genomic Medicine Conference will be held March 26-28, 2018 at the HudsonAlpha campus. Registration is open.