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Washington University genome institute receives $60 million

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The McDonnell Genome Institute at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is one of four institutions to receive $60 million in federal money to study the genetic factors of several common complex diseases such as diabetes, autism and epilepsy, The National Institutes of Health announced Thursday.

The research is designed to discover how differences in DNA either increase the risk of contracting the diseases or produce variations that reduce the risk. Scientists will sequence the complete DNA, or genome, of 150,000 to 200,000 people.

The project will provide a total of $240 million to form a new Centers for Common Disease Genomics network among Washington University School of Medicine, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Massachusetts, Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and the New York Genome Center.

Richard K. Wilson, director of the McDonnell Institute, said the collaboration and research-sharing will allow for the largest and most comprehensive study of the diseases to date.

"It really takes a village," he said. "One center such as mine could have an impact but given our limited capacity, it could take us a long time. If we get multiple places with similar experiences and capacity, we should be able to move the research forward that much faster."

McDonnell researchers will use the money to initially focus on cardiovascular disease, with many of the research subjects being either black or from a northern region in Finland. Studying people within a specific population group makes changes in genomes associated with the diseases more obvious to researchers, Wilson said, rather than having people from all over the country and different genetic background in the same study.

"We can say 'Here's what we learned from the African-American study, here's what we learned from the Finland study.' That just makes a more powerful design to get to the genetic roots of the disease," he said.

In 2008, McDonnell scientists were the first to sequence the tumor of a cancer patient and compare it with the patient's normal tissue. Using the new grant, McDonnell will apply lessons from that research to other common complex diseases. The effort is made possible in part because technology has evolved to make the research more efficient and less expensive, Wilson said.

Researchers hope their work will eventually lead to improved diagnosis and better treatment for all patients.

"We know a little about the diseases' genetics and biology but we obviously don't know everything and we don't have fabulous treatments yet," Wilson said. "The goal is to advance the genomics so we know a bit more about drug targets and other factors to determine someone's risk (for developing diseases)."

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