The $105 million genomic medicine project announced Wednesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo builds on two strengths at the University at Buffalo: supercomputing and expertise in the management of health-related data.
UB owns a supercomputer that can do in one day what it would take a PC 20 years to do.
UB also operates an Institute for Healthcare Informatics that specializes in studying how best to record, store, search, share and analyze health care information.
The plan is to upgrade these facilities in a partnership with the New York Genome Center, a consortium of institutions in the state that do research on using genetic information to develop new tests and treatments.
It is hoped the investment also will help existing biotech companies in Buffalo and attract others that need intensive computing power and expertise in electronic health information. Four companies focused on genomic medicine have committed to either move to Buffalo or expand in the area, the governor said.
Buffalo will get $50 million of the aid as part of Cuomo’s vow in 2012 to give this region an extra $1 billion in state money over several years to boost economic development. The rest will go to the New York Genome Center, which is headquartered in Manhattan and includes UB and Roswell Park Cancer Institute as two of its 16 member institutions.
Among other things, officials said, the funds will be used here to upgrade the supercomputer at the UB Center for Computational Research so that its computing power is 10 times greater and its storage capacity 20 times bigger.
“This is about looking at patient data and understanding how to better intervene and improve outcomes,” said Dr. Peter Winkelstein, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
Medical advances have shown that cancers and other diseases develop from mutations in our genes – some inherited from parents and others acquired, such as from cigarette smoking.
By deciphering and comparing patients’ genes, better tests and treatments can be targeted to an individual’s unique genetics. It’s called genomic or personalized medicine, and scientists in Buffalo and elsewhere are betting on it in a big way.
For instance, the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 regional councils appointed by Cuomo to spur economic development, in 2012 awarded one of its largest grants – $5.1 million – for a new Center for Personalized Medicine at Roswell Park. The cancer center invested $16 million, much of it for a supercomputer and machines called sequencers to analyze patients’ genes.
Roswell Park also is sharing in the $105 million, although details were not available, officials said.
Every cell in the body contains DNA, the inherited genetic instructions to make and maintain an organism. DNA looks like a long twisted ladder, with the steps composed of pairs of four building-block chemicals. There are about three billion of those steps all arranged in a certain order.
A gene is a section of DNA that tells cells to produce proteins responsible for what goes on in our cells, such as determining what we look like and how well we respond to an infection. Humans have 20,000 to 25,000 genes, and every person has two copies of each gene. A genome is the complete set of those genes.
The reason why there is so much excitement about genomic medicine is that the time and cost of figuring out the exact order of an individual’s genome – a process known as gene sequencing – is declining to levels where it could become a routine part of medical care.
The first human genome was sequenced in 2003 after more than 13 years of work at a cost of nearly $3 billion, making it the single biggest project every in biological science. Today, an individual’s complete genome can be deciphered in a few days for less than $10,000, and experts expect the price and time to continue dropping.
The promise of genomic medicine is that patients in the future will have their genomes sequenced to find out what diseases they are at risk for and work with physicians on prevention strategies. It also appears likely that by recording and analyzing data from large populations – genetic, medical and personal information – researchers can determine which patients will respond best to which treatments.
For example, recent studies have identified subtypes of breast cancer, meaning that many patients receive the same chemotherapy even though their tumors are different and may not respond well to a treatment that also comes with serious side effects.
One project at Roswell Park is looking at which type of chemotherapy works best.
Researchers at UB’s Hunter James Kelly Research Institute are interested in how genes modify the course and potential treatment of Krabbe disease, an inherited disorder that leads to fatal damage of the nervous system.
“Genomic medicine will help predict whether someone will have a disease, when and how severe, and how they will respond to treatment based on differences in their DNA,” said Dr. Lawrence Wrabetz, director of the institute.
All of this requires massive computing horsepower and expertise in how to analyze the information, assets that Buffalo has, said Thomas Furlani, director of UB’s Center for Computational Research, located on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“This is the fundamental building block of science today,” he said.
The nonprofit New York Genome Center was formed in 2011 as a collaborative venture of 11 founding New York City area research institutions that sought to create a major hub of research into the human genome. It includes Columbia University, Cornell University/Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai Medical Center, and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, New York University/NYU School of Medicine.
The center will focus on taking the information and organizing research to treat and prevent diseases.
“We’re treating the patient the same way today as five years ago with incremental improvements, but we’re at the cusp right now of doing a transformative improvement,” said Dr. Robert Darnell, the center’s chief executive officer and scientific director.
Genomic medicine is emerging as a major industry. A recent Battelle study showed genomics had contributed $965 billion to the U.S. economy, including thousands of new jobs, from 1988 to 2012.
Four companies will be the initial beneficiaries of the collaboration, according to UB and state officials. They are Computer Task Group, a Buffalo-based information technology solutions firm; Empire Genomics, which arose out of research at Roswell Park; AESKU Diagnostics, a German-based life sciences firm seeking to establish a new operation in the Buffalo area and Lineagen, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based firm seeking to expand its medical diagnostics business.
“This is exactly the type of public-private partnership that can lead to medical breakthroughs and innovations originating from New York State,” said Alexander N. Cartwright, UB vice president for research and economic development.