A landmark research project that will develop human genome data for treatment of Alzheimer’s and heart diseases is underway by UNC-Greensboro, Duke University Medical Center and Moses Cone Health System.

The new program, known as the Guilford Genomic Medicine Project, will be funded through $3.4 million in the joint defense appropriation bill, approved recently by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

It was first announced July 14 during a press conference at the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro, with U.S. Rep Brad Miller, D-NC, and U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, R-NC, who helped secure the project’s funding.

Miller said that the project is multi-year and that the $3.4 million is start-up funding. The total was originally $4 million at the time of the announcement, but was reduced by $600,000 in the House-Senate compromise committee.

“The Human Genome Project is the next frontier of medical science and it can change medicine just unrecognizably in the next generation or two,” said Miller. “We will not just treat people for heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease…we will know who is going to get either of them and how we can treat them, tailor treatment to those individuals in a way that will prevent them from developing heart disease or Alzheimer’s.”

The project assures that Guilford County and the rest of the Triad region of Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, will be in the forefront of genomic research as the area evolves from a manufacturing-based economy to one more focused on high-tech and biotechnology, according to those involved with the program.

“This will be where some of the most important research of the Human Genome Project will be going on,” Miller added.

Already, the region boasts the Piedmont Triad Research Park in downtown Winston-Salem, home to companies like Targacept, which is also focusing on Alzheimer’s treatments.

Three players, two aims

The Guilford Genomic Medicine Project is designed to build on new information derived from the international Human Genome Project about the basic set of inheritable genetic “instructions” for the development and function of human beings.

“We are very excited about this partnership,” UNCG Chancellor Patricia Sullivan said. “It has great potential for lots of projects coming from the University with our partners are Moses Cone and Duke University. Our dream — is that at some point, when none of us in this room are still engaged in the project, people will think of the Guilford Genomic Medicine Project as the leader in bringing genomic medicine to the bedside and to lay people in clinical education.”

UNCG’s Institute for Health, Science and Society (IHS), headed by Vincent Henrich, a professor of biology, will take the lead on the project’s education core. To carry out its responsibilities, UNCG’s IHS will require the services of a genetic counselor, a public health advisor, a graduate assistant, educational material development and production, educational seminars, focus groups and administrative support.

Duke’s Center for Human Genetics (CHG) will have major responsibilities for developing the project’s Bioinformatics Core and Databank/Genotyping Core, an effort that will be coordinated by its director, Margaret Pericak-Vance. The center is part of the Institute of Genomic Science and Policy which houses five research and education centers that work together to provide solutions to genomic questions and problems. Funding for Duke’s CHG will cover expenses for computer programmers, lab services, technicians, PC and mainframe computing resources, and equipment.

Moses Cone Health System will coordinate the clinical implementation core of the project. Specific applications and potential benefits of genomics will be introduced to the community through a series of clinical pilot programs based in Guilford County under the leadership of Cone. Moses Cone will require support for overall project coordination and administration in the first year, and for development and implementation of the clinical pilots in years two and three.

The project’s first aim is to increase awareness of genetics and the impact of genomics on medical practice through the development and implementation of an educational program for health professionals and the community.

Second, with the fully informed consent of participants, it will compile a genetic database that will support the third and final phase of the project…the introduction of specific applications of genomic medicine to the community through pilot clinical programs. The project will be conducted in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations governing human subjects research and the privacy of medical records.

Expectations are high

“This project, I think, will be to future genomic medicine what the Framingham Study has been to the care and treatment and predisposition factors in cardiovascular and nutrition research,” said UNCG’s Sullivan, citing the landmark heart study begun in 1948 under the auspices of Boston University and the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute.

Dennis Barry, CEO of Moses Cone Health System, said Guilford County is a good place for this particular project because it has a stable, yet diverse, population.

“We are going to be focusing on heart disease and on Alzheimer’s…Cone is particularly well-suited in both these areas,” Barry noted. “We have had a very large heart program for many years. This project would not have come about except for the collaborative efforts of Duke, UNCG and Cone.”

The Guilford Genomic Medicine Project has the potential to transform the future of health care, not only for Guilford County, but as a prototype for the rest of North Carolina and even the entire nation, said Pericak-Vance at Duke.

“What we have already learned from genomic research is rapidly outstripping the traditional frameworks in the practice of medicine,” she said. “We have already identified genes that are associated with such important diseases as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease.

Representative Coble said the project will also have an impact on those who have served the country at times of war.

“I am particularly excited about the opportunities this project would present for the veterans of Guilford County,” said Coble. “It is my understanding that Guilford County veterans will be among the beneficiaries of this pilot project, and the knowledge derived from their voluntary participation could eventually benefit not only the Department of Defense but every family across our nation.”

President George W. Bush is expected to sign the defense bill funding the Guilford Genomic Medicine Project shortly. The project’s steering committee is expected to meet in early October.

UNCG’s IHS: www.uncg.edu/ihs

Duke’s CHG: www.genomics.duke.edu/centers/genetics.html

Moses Cone: www.mosescone.com