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March 20, 2006

New U-M Center for Genetics in Health and Medicine will help bridge the gap between science and medicine

ANN ARBOR, MI – One day in the not-so-distant future, a DNA test will be as much a part of an ordinary doctor’s visit as a blood pressure check. By scanning each patient’s unique genetic code, doctors will be able to predict which patients are most likely to develop a specific disease and select the most effective therapy for each patient.

Sally CamperResearch advances in genetics have the potential to transform the practice of medicine. But to achieve that potential, laboratory scientists and clinical researchers must work together to make the difficult transition from scientific discovery to clinical practice.

To facilitate that transition, the U-M Medical School has created the Center for Genetics in Health and Medicine (CGHM). Funded with an initial $2.5 million grant from the U-M Medical School, the center’s overall mission is to enhance scientific interaction among U-M scientists and clinicians conducting genetics-related research in many different fields.

“Collaboration is the key to the future of genetic medicine, but our researchers are scattered in separate departments throughout the Medical School and across the University,” says Allen S. Lichter, M.D., Dean of the University of Michigan Medical School. “This center will bring U-M clinicians and scientists together to focus on complex interdisciplinary research questions. It will provide specialized core laboratory facilities and the expertise required for advanced genetics research. In addition, the center will help train the next generation of physicians and scientists.”

“Just five years after the draft sequence of the human genome was published, genetics is beginning to permeate all fields of medicine,” says Sally A. Camper, Ph.D., the James V. Neel Collegiate Professor of Human Genetics and chair of the U-M Department of Human Genetics.

“The ‘genomics era’ presents us with a remarkable opportunity to improve diagnosis, prevention and treatment of human genetic diseases and to identify the risk factors for common, complex diseases –  such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer –  which have both genetic and environmental components,” Camper says.

The link between genetics and medicine is fitting given the long and distinguished history of human genetics research in the U-M Medical School, according to Camper.

“The center will help us continue the legacy of James Neel, Lee Dice and other U-M visionaries who developed the field of human genetics and understood its seminal importance to medicine,” she says.

In 1956, Neel created the U-M Department of Human Genetics – the first academic department devoted to genetics at any medical school in the United States. Dice opened the first Hereditary Disease Clinic at U-M in 1941. Since then, many of today’s most prominent geneticists and physician-scientists have received their graduate or post-doctoral training at U-M.

One of Camper’s immediate goals for the Center for Genetics in Health and Medicine is to nurture promising graduate students, research fellows, medical students and genetic counseling students who are preparing for careers in medical genetics by providing new interdisciplinary educational programs and financial support.

“We just awarded our first CGHM fellowships to two outstanding post-doctoral research fellows,” Camper says. “And we hope to expand the fellowship program in the future.”

The first recipient of a one-year fellowship from the genetics research center was Mathilde Malapel-Body, Ph.D., a research fellow in pathology who will study the link between Crohn’s disease and genetic variation in a gene called NOD2. Malapel-Body will work with Gabriel Nunez, M.D., the Paul De Kruif Professor of Academic Pathology, in the U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The second individual to receive a fellowship was Hee Chui Lee, Ph.D., a research fellow in geriatric medicine. Working with Ao-Lin Hsu, Ph.D. a professor of internal medicine, Lee will study genes that extend the lifespan of a worm called C. elegans.

Camper says the new research center will have a core group of 30 to 40 U-M researchers from clinical and basic science departments across the University, and a larger group of affiliate members. She also plans to recruit four to six additional investigators, all of whom will have joint appointments in genetics and clinical medicine. Camper will serve as interim director of the new center until a permanent director is hired.

Another immediate goal is to provide core laboratory support services and state-of-the-art technical facilities for use by researchers in the Medical School and across the University.

A Family Studies Core Facility, staffed by genetic counselors and administrative staff, will be developed to assist investigators with clinical research. Staff will identify and recruit families and individuals who are interested in participating in research, obtain informed consent and medical histories, and collect blood or tissue samples for genetic analysis.

A Genetic Analysis Core Laboratory will provide shared access to the expensive, high-tech equipment required to rapidly sequence and genotype blood and tissue samples for use in scientific and clinical research studies.

An internal faculty steering committee has been appointed to develop and implement plans for the Center for Genetics in Health and Medicine. The committee includes Goncalo Abecasis, D. Phil., associate professor of biostatistics; Thomas M. Glaser, M.D., associate professor of human genetics and internal medicine; Stephen B. Gruber, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of internal medicine, human genetics and epidemiology; Marci M. Lesperance, M.D., associate professor of otolaryngology; Donna M. Martin, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics and pediatrics and communicable diseases; Miriam Meisler, Ph.D., professor of human genetics; Richard R. Neubig, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and associate professor of internal medicine; Elizabeth M. Petty, M.D., associate professor of human genetics and internal medicine; Julia E. Richards, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and epidemiology; Wendy R. Uhlmann, M.S., genetic counselor in internal medicine; Jeffrey S. Warren, M.D., professor of pathology; and Beverly Yashar, Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics.

Written by Sally Pobojewski

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