The woman in charge of spinning University of Washington technology out into the business world, Linden Rhoads, boldly predicted a year ago that UW would pull in $300 million from the federal stimulus. Now one of UW’s top genome scientists, Debbie Nickerson, has confirmed the number, and says a big chunk of the loot is going into her cutting-edge lab.
The UW has been awarded about $300 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, AKA the “stimulus,” Nickerson said Friday at the Technology Alliance’s Science and Technology Discovery Series. That investment has created about 2,000 local jobs, Nickerson says. About $25 million of taxpayer money, funneled via the National Institutes of Health, has been used to create a new Northwest Genome Center.
(After double-checking with help from UW computer scientist Ed Lazowska, I found that $193 million of stimulus money has arrived at the university already; the total climbs to $270 million when counting the second year of guaranteed stimulus grants, and to $300 million if you count stimulus grants for things other than research.)
Those are big-time dollars, and a lot of responsibility to deliver a payoff. But Nickerson, doesn’t come across as someone full of self-important hot air. A native of Queens, NY, where her family calls her “Dr. Genomey” pronounced like “Juh-know-me?” in a Queens accent. She was unusually good at breaking down the sometimes impenetrable jargon of genomics into plain English, and explaining why the Northwest Genome Center matters.
“This is my new Corvette,” Nickerson said.
The center—which also has received support from the Washington Research Foundation and the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund—is more about the potential for the science and human health than it really is about jobs. While Nickerson has been able to hire a few biotech industry veterans during the downturn, and some promising college grads, which she notes in this NIH-produced video, she didn’t say exactly how many people the Northwest Genome Center has hired.
Most of the work involves highly automated operation of “next-generation” gene sequencing instruments. These tools, and the software that helps store the data, have enough horsepower to plow through a sequence of about a billion A, C, G, and T chemical base pairs every day. That’s up from a few million per day a decade ago, and about a thousand a day back in 1992 when people doubted whether something like the Human Genome Project was even possible.
Today’s machines don’t make perfectly accurate reads on the first run-through, but they are fast enough that it’s practical for scientists to run through a genome 50 times over to correct for errors, Nickerson says.
That speed and efficiency allows genome scientists to ask new questions, Nickerson says, like how tiny variations can make a big difference in physical traits. (She illustrated that with a slide that highlighted the difference in height between NBA star Shaquille O’Neal and the tiny NBA guard Earl Boykins).
While finding the variations that lead to height differences is an interesting question, Nickerson’s team is looking for small genetic variations that are more likely to generate interest from folks at places like Merck, Pfizer, or Roche. Specifically, the UW researchers are hunting for variations that affect our chances of getting diseases of the heart, lungs, or blood. Researchers want to know what happens when a C gets put in the place where a T ordinarily will be in the genome, or when one of those chemical bases gets inserted in the wrong place, or deleted when it shouldn’t be. Might these small changes in genetic code explain why some people can smoke and never get lung cancer, or why some can eat cheeseburgers regularly and never get high cholesterol that can lead to a heart attack or stroke?
It will probably take decades to answer ambitious questions like that, but the Northwest Genome Center is one of the few places in the U.S. equipped to tackle that kind of study. The speed and bandwidth of next-generation sequencing tools “has been a tremendous advance,” Nickerson says.
None of this is really possible without access to lots of human biological samples, with appropriate ethics approvals. Nickerson’s team is plowing through some of the deepest pools of samples biologists have. They include genomes from some of the 150,000 women who participated in the landmark Women’s Health Initiative, and some of the 250,000 people who have participated for decades in the famous Framingham Heart Study, who are from around Framingham, MA.
At the UW, samples are being studied from 8,000 individuals who participated in those studies, spitting out the gene sequence data, and trying to find a way to connect the dots between disruptions in genetics and the clinical symptoms of disease that a doctor sees. The center Nickerson leads is one of just two new sequencing centers being equipped with stimulus money (along with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard). UW hustled so hard for this stimulus cash that it found space for the Northwest Genome Center and outfitted it with the necessary air-conditioning in less than a month, Nickerson said.
Before getting too carried away with breathless anticipation of genomics, it’s worth noting that 10 years after the first draft of the Human Genome Project was completed it’s still staggering how little scientists know about the genome. Nickerson noted that there’s still no agreement on how many actual genes—which carry the instructions for proteins that carry out bodily functions—actually exist. The latest estimate is 20,000 genes. And while genes are in the “coding” regions of the genome, Nickerson said we know even less about the vast “non-coding” regions that don’t appear to have genes in them. How various environmental stimuli we encounter every day affect the expression of genes is something scientists know even less about.
It all sounds to me like something that will keep those genome scientists busy for a long, long time. “I could have had a stately mansion on Lake Washington instead of this, but I’d rather have this,” Nickerson joked.