GENETIC TESTING

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Fosters Genomics Research, Education, Clinical Applications and Workforce Development

In just eight years, the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (Huntsville, Ala.) has grown to be a sequencing powerhouse, ranking among the top laboratories in the world in terms of sequencing volumes and attracting some of the nation’s top genetic scientists to its campus. But the institute does not stop at just building a stellar reputation for its research; HudsonAlpha is also on a mission to drive public genomic education, workforce development, and economic growth. DTET recently spoke to Hudson- Alpha’s president and science director, Richard Myers, Ph.D., to learn about the institute’s growth and ambitious plans.

HudsonAlpha has comprehensive offerings in the
areas of research, clinical services, and sequencing support. How do these pieces fit together?
We started HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology a little more than eight years ago with the idea of doing research, teaching, and more recently, clinical medicine all in the same building. The unusual part is that on the same campus we also have for-profit life science companies. Rather than nearby or across town we actually lunch together and run into each other. The idea of our founders was to put it together and see what happens. The companies keep their finances separate and as a non-profit we can do philanthropy, write grants. The idea is that we stew around together to exchange ideas and collaborate. We see that it is really working.

The overarching mission is genomics. The idea of HudsonAlpha is to focus on a very powerful technology, and it is not just machines, but it is a discipline, a way of thinking about things. Instead of looking at one gene and one protein, we cast a wide net and look at all of our genes. Genomics has so many applications that we are not worried about this being short lived. It is decades of research, teaching, clinical work, and the companies collaborating to make discoveries about human health and disease, the environment, forensics, plants, and animals.

With such a broad range of goals, how do you measure success?
We ask ourselves all of the time. Are we just doing this or do we have metrics that guide us? The answer is a little of both. If you were doing research and you had to meet milestones every day imposed by outside sources, you will just not be as creative and make interesting discoveries.

The metrics of success are different in our workforce development, our education and outreach, and our research. One measure of our growth is that from a relatively small number of scientists we are publishing of a lot of papers in high-impact journals. That is not enough, but that is one measure. I would argue that it is impressive what we are able to do with a modest number of people. It is possible because of the economies of scale resulting from building a genomics infrastructure. Other metrics have to do with reputation of the institute and the scientists.

We are still small, but a measure of success is the number of serious collaborations with 1,000 groups of scientists. A lot of that comes from our Genomic Services Laboratory where we can do outreach because of our marvelous infrastructure and expertise. It is not just the machines and computers, but the expertise of the scientists and our experience. We have developed a reputation of doing it and doing it really well.

Of course the ultimate impact is that it changes medicine or the way we do agriculture in a positive way. Because our research leans towards the applied side we are seeing this. We are seeing tests come out of the discoveries from the research side. Out of the 36 companies over our eight years, so far, six have been acquired in the $60 million to $80 million range. I joke with my Bay Area biotech and venture capital friends that out there that would, maybe, be considered a failure. Not really, of course, but the idea is that we take on problems that are important and that we are in a sweet spot that we don’t have to have a $1 billion fund to make it worthwhile here.

A unique aspect of the institute is the emphasis on education. How and why does HudsonAlpha do this?
The vision is that we want to make a major difference in the health of the planet—that is people, animals, plants, and the environment—by applying these tools and learning as much as we can. But then we work to get the knowledge gained from that out there as soon as possible. Education and outreach are a major part of that. We don’t just find genes, we do something about that in the clinic, and our Educational Outreach group uses that to train physicians and educate families.

We spend an enormous amount of money—15 full-time people—on education and outreach. That is not just K-12 students, but junior colleges and four-year universities, too. I feel it is very important. We teach the public, and that includes doctors and attorneys, too. This team identifies gaps in education in various groups and figures out with a scientific approach the best way to fill that gap. In this state every 7th grader and most 10th graders are using lessons and materials we developed here. It is now going outside of the state, region, and country.

What takeaways are there in your education and outreach for the rest of the genomics industry?
Science and academia and big industry don’t do this nearly as much as they should. This is part of our culture. We are more than research. Most scientists would see this as distracting. There are outreach programs in other places, but I am arguing ours is the best in the world simply because of how we built it with longterm legs and it will be here forever. The lessons people can learn from us and the rest of the outreach community nationally is that this is really important. Frankly, I think anybody getting state or federal money for research owes this to the public. If everybody did just a little bit it would demystify genomics. This is not trying to get everybody to be a scientist, although building a workforce is part of the goal, but people need to understand genomics regardless.

How does this outreach impact clinical adoption of genomic medicine?
I taught medical students for years and other than the very few that go into medical genetics and continue to use it; it is a challenge to find the time for students and physicians to learn this. It is a huge challenge to figure out how to get physicians to hear about genomic medicine and incorporate it into practice.

Locally, there are 700 physicians in the Huntsville area, which has about 450,000 people in the city and whole surrounding area. About 10 percent of physicians here deeply embrace genomics and work with us. We work in partnership with the physicians to figure out what they need to know. Geneticists have been working with physicians for years. But in the past it was for rare genetic disease. Now we are talking about figuring out how use genomics to wisely impact a much larger part of the population. It is early, but it is starting to happen.

Part of the physician training is an online tool. The outreach team, with our genetic counselors and research scientists, developed an online tool to show what genomics is. What it can do. What it cannot currently do and what the information means. We also did the same things for families coming in with undiagnosed conditions to get their genomes sequenced. They can go online and see these materials, written in everyday language, before they get here. This model is replicable and can be incorporated with telemedicine. We are still testing it out and we will share it. I predict in two to four years we will go to hospitals and clinics and spread it nationally. It is part of our strategic plan.

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