Among the institute’s latest projects is an effort to identify genetic diagnoses for children with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays. The project recently hit a key milestone when it diagnosed more than 100 children, and the work continues.
Also this fall, HudsonAlpha played host to about 200 top researchers from around the world for the 4th annual Immunogenomics conference. Immunogenomics involves the intersection of immunology and genomics and explores ways human genomes interact with disease.
“Traditionally, we study the genomic DNA you get from your parents to see if you have genetic diseases and mutations, but this is different,” said Dr. Jian Han, a faculty investigator at the institute and organizer of the conference. “Rather than study the DNA from your parents, we are studying your genomic DNA interacting with the environment, and that is your immune system.”
“Everything is related to the immune system,” he said. “Our immune system is the smartest and best doctor around, and if we can learn from the best, we can be better.”
Han, who came to the U.S. from China in 1986 and earned a doctorate in medical genetics at UAB, has started four different molecular diagnostic companies, all in Alabama.
He credits HudsonAlpha for fostering an attractive environment for biotech entrepreneurs like himself.
“HudsonAlpha offers a lot of benefits, such as access to next-generation sequencing technology and access to a wonderful community that is so supportive. There are a lot of angel investors willing to take a risk and invest in our ventures, which allows us to hire scientists and technicians,” he said.
In addition, the institute is very supportive of spinoffs and very flexible when it comes to licensing technology and other financial terms.
“We often get asked, ‘Why Alabama? Why not the Bay Area? Why not Boston?’ because of the biotech clusters that are there,” Han said. “But people don’t realize Alabama also has a biotech cluster, ongoing research at a high level, a low cost of living and a wonderful environment.”
HudsonAlpha President and Science Director Richard Myers said the Immunogenomics conference, as well as others held at the institute, not only showcase its assets to a wide and diverse audience, but they also put Huntsville and North Alabama in the international spotlight.
“The researchers who attend the conference, spend time at HudsonAlpha, tour the area and dine under the Saturn V rocket are very impressed with all we have to offer, and we want them to share those experiences when they return home. We enjoy seeing them return to the Immunogenomics conference as well,” he said.
The 5th Immunogenomics conference will take place Oct. 2-4, 2017
For Greg Cooper, the institute has provided the perfect backdrop for his work in diagnosing children with unexplained neurological conditions.
Cooper is a HudsonAlpha faculty investigator who is involved in the Clinical Sequencing Exploratory Research (CSER) project, which is helping end a diagnostic odyssey for many families.
Some conditions, such as Down syndrome, have an obvious genetic cause. But there are other overlapping symptoms and disabilities that also have a genetic origin, and they are not as easy to pinpoint.
“With genetics, we’re hoping to go after those underlying causes,” Cooper said. “A major advancement has been our ability to go from looking at whole chromosomes to being able to look at every bit of those chromosomes. CSER looks at whole genome sequencing to look at every piece of a child’s genetic code.”
And while the diagnoses don’t come with a cure-all for the children, they do offer direction on medication, therapies and support groups. Parents say that simply having an answer is invaluable.
David and Miranda Ainsworth of Florence spent eight years going to countless doctor appointments searching for a diagnosis for their daughter, Anna Brooke. In February, she was diagnosed through the CSER project with Cornelia de Lange syndrome (CdLS), a rare genetic developmental disorder.
“This has been such as long journey for us, and we were just thrilled to have an answer,” Miranda Ainsworth said. “We can deal with whatever, but to get an answer that puts it all together, this is what we needed. We needed that for our family.”
CSER is funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, and Phase 1 will end next year. But HudsonAlpha is applying for Phase 2 funding to continue the work. Most of the children involved are from North Alabama but some hailed from other parts of the state and surrounding states. More than 100 children, and counting, have been diagnosed.
In a similar effort, the institute is partnering with Alabama’s Child Rehabilitation Services and recruiting families from South Alabama to participate.
“I never dreamed 10 years ago that we’d be using genetics on a daily basis and actually be doing something that not only was contributing to our general knowledge about how genetics shapes our health, but in fact contributes in a very direct way to a particular person or particular family,” Cooper said.
“It’s very gratifying to make these kinds of discoveries, and it’s also motivation to work harder.”
BIO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
HudsonAlpha also provides other services to the community in the form of genetic testing. A current effort, a partnership with Kailos Genetics and Redstone Federal Credit Union, is free breast and ovarian cancer genetic testing to 30-year-old men and women living in Madison, Jackson, Limestone, Marshall and Morgan counties.
HudsonAlpha, which opened in 2008, was designed to be a hothouse of biotech economic development.
Its mission is four-fold:
- Sparking scientific discoveries that can impact human health and well-being
- Bringing genomic medicine into clinical care
- Fostering life sciences entrepreneurship and business growth
- Encouraging the creation of a genomics-literate workforce and society