Friday, October 5, 2012

New series on the human immunogenome

Most of the time The Mix covers general research topics, but for the next several Fridays we will feature a podcast series focused on the emerging field of immunogenomics. Guests will include nationally recognized experts in this area from UAB, HudsonAlpha, Harvard, Stanford and the National Institutes of Health.

We recorded the interviews live at a recent immunogenomics symposium organized jointly by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and leading medical journal Nature Immunology. The symposium was sponsored in part by UAB and its Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

Immunogenomics as a field is using new genomics tools to unravel the complexity of the human immune system and related diseases, which are now known to include heart disease, neurological disease and cancer because of their interplay with inflammation. The work promises to improve diagnostic tools and offer new treatment approaches.

Among the most important of genomics tools are microarrays, which enable researchers to measure the expression levels of many genes at once, and bioinformatic programs, which identify patterns in the massive data sets generated during genomic analysis of individuals and populations.

Our first guest in the series is S. Louis Bridges, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology within the UAB School of Medicine and deputy director of the UAB Comprehensive Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Autoimmunity Center. Tune in next Friday, when we will talk with Stephen Quake, D.Phil., professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford.

Show notes for the interview:

1:09 Immunogenomics can be defined as the use of the tools of genomics to study human immune cells, and to define the mechanism by which immune-related diseases damage the body. 

2:02 Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common autoimmune disease, in which immune cells called antibodies come to target the body's own tissues.

2:47 In many ways, RA represents a cogent example of the intersection between immunology and genomics in that about 30 percent of the risk for the disease is based on your genes. In addition, small changes in more than 35 different genes contribute to that risk.

3:39 Bridges and colleagues founded the CLEAR registry, which stands for Consortium for the Longitudinal Evaluation of African Americans with Early Rheumatoid Arthritis. The registry compares the incidence and severity of RA in African-Americans against other ethnic and racial groups over time to better understand how immune-system mechanisms cause damage. Past studies have found that RA is more severe in African-Americans than in whites.

4:42 Researchers are working to understand the genetic basis of RA severity in African-Americans in part by examining single genes (RANK ligand, peptidase) known to be associated with disease severity or early onset. Bridges and colleagues have also been conducting genome-wide association studies, which look at every piece of code making up every gene (nucleotide) in a group of people to identify the differences seen only in people with a certain condition. In many cases, such studies reveal that networks of genes contribute to a disease, as opposed to a problem with the code of any single gene.

5:40 All races share 80 to 90 percent of the genetic background leading to RA, so perhaps 2 to 5 percent of genes vary by race, says Bridges.

6:02 In some whites, a gene called PTP-N22, for instance, has randomly undergone a small change in its code called an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism). People who happen to have that change in PTP-N22 are 1.9 times as likely to develop RA.

7:09 A change in a single piece of code out of 3 billion base pairs making up the human genome, if it's in the wrong spot, can contribute to either the incidence or severity of RA. Such changes may predict which patients will go on to see their joints destroyed.

7:56  Immunogenomics work will have its first impact in the clinic in the form of a new wave of identified biomarkers that predict which patients will do well on which treatments. Further down the road, Bridges sees the field identifying more specific subsets of cells most responsible for RA-related damage, which could in turn lead to the development of more targeted treatments.

9:44 Bridges recommends that members of the general public interested in learning more on RA and related research visit the Mayo Clinic's RA pages. Researchers may want to look up the work of Robert Plenge, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, whose interview is coming up as part of this podcast series in a few weeks.

About the podcaster:

Greg Williams @gregscience @themixuab is research editor within Media Relations at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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