“You can’t go far down that road without thinking about how genomics will affect the insurance industry, or what we can patent or should patent, or on the level of spirituality: who we are and where we came from.” — Dr. Huntington WillardHuntington Willard, PhD, says in a few years from now when people ask which institution did genomics research right, he wants the answer to be Duke University.

Willard, a nationally recognized leader in genomics research, takes the helm of Duke University’s $200 million Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP) January 1.

Currently director and president of the University Hospitals of Cleveland Research Institute, Willard was also director of the Center for Human Genetics at Case Western Reserve, Cleveland. He wrote or co-wrote more than 250 scientific papers, primarily on the structure and function of chromosomes, which organize and carry the estimated 40,000 human genes.

“Hunt Willard is one of America’s premier geneticists, and his record for leadership at a local and national level is superb,” said R. Sanders Williams, M.D., dean of the Duke University School of Medicine at the time of Willard’s appointment.

At Duke, Willard will oversee the five research centers. They are the centers for human genomics, genome technology, bioinformatics and computational biology, and genome ethics, law and policy.

All schools aboard

Researchers at the centers carry on studies of the genetic basis of diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer, develop new computer-aided research techniques, and organize forums to explore the social impact of genomic advances.

“It’s hard to think of a school at Duke that is not involved in this,” Willard tells Local Tech Wire. “Even the Divinity School has a role.”

Willard says the multi-disciplinary approach Duke is taking to genomics research is one of the factors that led him to accept the job. Duke Provost Peter Lange says one of the things that attracted Duke to Willard, in addition to his record of accomplishments, “is the speed with which he grasped and embraced the unique interdisciplinary qualities of the IGSP.

“The biggest challenge will be to coordinate the many aspects of genomics research going on at Duke,” Willard says, “and to use that to zoom in on signature projects.”

Something ‘spectacular’

Willard says his first order of business when he arrives in a few weeks will be to begin accessing, “What are the real strengths at Duke to accomplish something spectacular for Duke and genomic sciences?”

Genomics research at Duke, says Willard, would “continue expanding at even if we did nothing. We’ll look for ways to accelerate that advancement, to push it up a notch.

“One of the reasons I was attracted to this post is that Duke has the opportunity to make its mark on how genomics is done in this country.”

Willard says that doing it right means looking at genomics “across the board, in society as a whole,” rather than just from the standpoint of biology or medicine. “Genomics will impact society as much as the industrial revolution,” he says.

Genomics research at Duke offers the opportunity to “spin-off or license technology to new companies and forge partnerships between academia and industry,” Willard says.

“Companies can bring tremendous resources to bear, especially in the medical area. We need to push to form those partnerships and make the best of them if the region and the state are to benefit fully.”

“The changes in medicine are going to lead the way to public understanding and acceptance,” Willard says.

Who are we?

“Health is the first entry point and offers solid ground for people to wrestle with these ideas,” he adds. “No one wants to be sick. Most people are in favor of anything that helps them stay healthy.”

Still, says Willard, “You can’t go far down that road without thinking about how genomics will affect the insurance industry, or what we can patent or should patent, or on the level of spirituality: who we are and where we came from.

“Genomics has a profound effect on how we see who we are and how we fit in the larger picture. The focus of the Institute on genome law and policy is one of the defining aspects of Duke compared to other institutions.”

Willard says genomics researchers have “an enormous education job” ahead of them and he hopes to attract that “subset of scientists” who can “talk to scientists in the most sophisticated terms but also to the public in non technical terms.”

Willard says the Institute will look at the controversial areas of genomics, such as potential effect on the environment of such things as crop genetics.

He says one area he finds particularly exciting is the potential of uncontroversial adult stems cells to offer some similar tissue repair and replacement possibilities researches think the more controversial embryonic stem cells offer. Several Triangle based companies, including Artecel, which bases its technology on research conducted at Duke, deal with adult stem cell projects.

The Institute will develop various means to address the policy issues raised by genomic research, such as forums, seminars, and position papers, Willard points out.

No matter how many seminars and forums Duke holds, however, Willard says, “If we’ve learned anything thus far in genomics, it’s that we’re going to be surprised.”

Duke Genomics web site: www.genomics.duke.edu/home/top_flash.cgi