Genomics & genetics


Genetically modified yeast organism

BioTech Institute Scientists Engineer Self-Destructing GMOs

January 29, 2018

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have the potential to help prevent the spread of diseases and increase both crop yields and nutritional value, but according to an article in Science Alert, "There's a big problem. . . . When you release altered species out into the wild, how can you prevent them from breeding with untweaked organisms living in their natural environment, and producing hybrid offspring that scientists can't control or regulate?" Synthetic biologist Maciej Maselko of the BioTechnology Institute, a Consortium member, is leading a team to solve this problem. Prof. Maselko's researchers have used the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to alter yeast microbes so they're genetically incompatible and incapable of mating with their non-GMO counterparts. They call this approach "synthetic incompatability," and it's a technique that could be used in a multitude of ways, including to curb invasive carp or increase the production of medicines derived from plants. Read the entire article here


New Articles from Wolf, Evans on Genomics Research Ethics, Patient Rights

January 23, 2018

Two recently published articles, one written by Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf and the other by LawSeqSM Working Group member Barbara J. Evans, grapple with important issues in genetic research ethics. The Wolf article, "The Continuing Evolution of Ethical Standards for Genomic Sequencing in Clinical Care: Restoring Patient Choice," outlines the complexities of setting policy to guide the management of incidental or secondary findings. She argues that the leading professional society for medical geneticists in the US, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), needs to change their current guideline to reflect empirically-based research on patient preferences regarding informed consent. In her commentary "HIPAA’s Individual Right of Access to Genomic Data: Reconciling Safety and Civil Rights," Prof. Evans applies the lens of civil rights law to a patient's right to view their own laboratory test results. Wolf and Evans are two of the most eminent legal scholars working on genomics research ethics; they were among the co-authors of the influential paper "Return of Genomic Results to Research Participants: The Floor, the Ceiling, and the Choices In Between." 


Jeffrey Kahn

Are Bioethicists Keeping Pace with Rapid Changes in Gene Editing?

January 17, 2018

Jeffrey Kahn, Director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, joined Minnesota Public Radio host Kerri Miller today to discuss innovations in gene editing and the consequences that must be considered as it moves into clinical application. New tools like CRISPR are much more targeted than past gene therapies; molecular biology now allows the precoding of both the material and the location affected by genetic change. This raises thorny ethical questions: could these techniques go beyond curing diseases to creating genetic enhancements that could make someone stronger or faster? Could gene editing be used to advance eugenics, by making it possible to change someone's skin color? Will the benefits be widely available, or only help the wealthy and powerful? What does it mean to disabled if we have the ability to wipe out conditions like Down syndrome? Rapid advancements in gene therapy and the development of technologies that are more powerful than originally expected means carefully considered policy and clinical approaches must be put in place. Listen to the whole conversation here. Before joining Johns Hopkins, Prof. Kahn was Director of the Center for Bioethics at University of Minnesota. 


Model of crystal structure for CRISPR-Cas9

Will 2018 Be the Year of CRISPR?

December 27, 2017

An article in MIT Technology Review notes, "In just the past few years, advances in [the gene-editing technology] CRISPR have been happening at a breakneck speed — and companies have sprung up to commercialize the technology. Now, patients in Europe and the U.S. could be treated with CRISPR-based therapies as soon as 2018." Looking at actual research, however, the picture is more mixed: trials are planned at Stanford University, for example, but have already been delayed at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexey Bersenev, director of the Advanced Cell Therapy Lab at Yale New Haven Hospital, cautions “the field is currently over-optimistic about possible results of clinical trials. . . . Every new and hot biomedical technology usually undergoes an inflated expectations phase.”


Logo for Petrie Flom Center, Harvard Law School

Genomic Screening: What's Age Got to Do with It?

December 18, 2017

A new post on the Bill of Health blog discusses new research that looks at whether upper age limits should be established for population-based preventive genomic screening. These types of limits are used in other clinical screenings on the assumption that older individuals wouldn't see clinical benefits. The authors of the paper used data from the GeneScreen study to look at how age issues were perceived and valued by researchers and participants. Their findings? "While clinical benefits of preventive genomic screening for older adults are debatable, our respondents perceived a range of benefits of screening in both clinical and research settings. Researchers and clinicians should carefully consider decisions about whether to exclude older adults and whether to provide information about benefits and risks across age groups."


Prof Susan M. WOlf

Wolf Joins TOPMed Advisory Panel

November 30, 2017

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has appointed Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf to the External Advisory Panel for the Trans-Omics in Precision Medicine (TOPMed) Program, which is dedicated to the advancement of heart, lung, blood, and sleep precision medicine. Since its launch in 2014, TOPMed has supporting whole genome sequencing and other omics platforms such as metabolomics and proteomics; the project researchers expect to have achieved a total of 150,000 whole genome sequences by the end of 2018. Research conducted on such a scale raises importance governance questions, including how best to ensure the privacy of participants' health data when it's shared with the broader research community. Prof. Wolf is a renowned expert on genomic privacy, having led several research studies that established the legally and ethically preferred methods to manage research findings from biobanks. The External Advisory Panel will provide the NHLBI Director and staff with expert guidance on TOPMed, with the goal of applying systems biology to drive the future of precision medicine. 


Lakes seen from the air

New Assessment Tool Will Help Improve Water Quality in Lakes and Streams

November 27, 2017

A team led by Michael Sadowsky, PhD, has created a tool designed to help public health officials better understand sources of contamination in our waterways. Sadowsky, a microbiologist, is the director of the BioTechnology Institute, a Consortium member. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 40% of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are impaired, with fecal contamination becoming a growing concern. Improved DNA sequencing technology has made it possible for researchers to identify the source of contamination, which should allow for identification of the pollutant at its source. Sadowsky's group used SourceTracker, a software program developed by the UMN’s Knights Lab, to compare the various organisms found in water samples. To learn more, click here


Brian Madeux

U Scientist is Among First to Edit Genes Within Body

November 22, 2017

Last week a 44-year-old California man was the first to be implanted with billions of copies of "a corrective gene and a genetic tool to cut his DNA in a precise spot," according to The Guardian. The patient, Brian Madeux, suffers from Hunter syndrome and has endured 26 operations to treat symptoms of the disease. Dr. Chester Whitley of Masonic Cancer Center, a Consortium member, is a lead scientist researching the therapy. It is based on zinc-finger nucleases, which work like "molecular scissors that seek and cut a specific piece of DNA." Dr. Whitley is quoted in the Atlantic, where he notes, “You know exactly where you’re going in the genome. It’s not like using a shotgun hoping you’re hitting a bird. It’s like using a rifle.” While still in clinical trial, if proven effective, zinc-finger nucleases could "kick off a new era for gentic disorders, one where kids never have to suffer their effects in the first place." 


Skin grown in a lab for use as graft

Whole-body Skin Graft Gives Hope to a Boy with a Rare Disease

November 10, 2017

An article in Science Magazine describes the case of a 7-year-old boy who suffers from "a severe form of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), an often-fatal group of conditions that cause skin to blister and tear off at the slightest touch." He has made a dramatic recovery after being treated with genetically modified stem cells that were used to grow new skin, which was then grafted onto his body. Jakub Tolar, MD, is also developing therapies for EB; he is Dean of the Medical School and Director of the Stem Cell Institute, a Consortium member. In the Science article, he notes, that "the grafts . . . can’t repair damage to internal surfaces such as the esophagus, which occurs in some EB cases. Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue for the boy in this study. The treatment is 'a good step in the right direction,' Tolar says, 'but it’s not curative.'” In a separate article in STAT, John Wagner, MD, Director of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital’s blood and marrow transplant program, says the findings have “'extraordinary' potential because, until now, the only stem cell transplants proven to work in humans was of hematopoietic stem cells — those in blood and bone marrow."


Nanibaa’ A. Garrison

Navajo Nation Reconsiders Ban on Genetic Research

October 16, 2017

An article in Nature News and Comment discusses a growing interest in genetic research within the Navajo Nation. DNA studies were banned in 2002 because of concerns about the misuse of genetic materials. Now, tribal leaders "increasingly see genetic research as a tool to improve medical care for the 174,000 residents of their sprawling reservation, which is roughly the size of Scotland." Consortium collaborator Nanibaa’ Garrison, PhD, a member of the Navajo Nation who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is among those helping develop the new policy. She indicates the plan is likely to address types of research that will be allowed, who will have access to genetic information, and who will provide oversight. Prof. Garrison has written widely on genetics, with a focus on health conditions prevalent in American Indian communities, such as type 2 diabetes. She is author or co-author of two articles on related topics that were published in a special symposium of the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics; here's a link to that issue, for which Consortium chair Susan Wolf was one of the editors.


Medical tech carrying cooler

Susan Wolf on the Ethics of GTEx

October 13, 2017

Nature News and Comment​ has just published an article about an National Institutes of Health (NIH)​-funded study on gene expression that's intended to create "a 'Google Maps' of the body, according to Kristin Ardlie of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard​. The study, known as GTEx, is collecting data from the tissues of deceased donors and has the goal of plugging "a gap in the search for the genetic origins of disease." Laura Siminoff, a bioethicist at Temple University​, has studied whether the families of donors truly understood the possible implications of participating in the study, and suggested that "some form of genetic counseling should be made part of the informed consent process for similar projects." Regarding the lack of a plan to return GTEx results to families, Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf noted in the article, “'A standing policy of simply "we will not return results" is becoming less and less common.' She noted that studies such as GTEx should plan to enable families to be identified if researchers discover, for instance, a mutation that dramatically increases the risk of cancer for relatives who inherit it."


M is for Microbe logo

BTI Launches M is for Microbe Lab Contest

September 18, 2017

The Biotechnology Institute (BTI), a Consortium member, has announced a competition in which participating labs will grow fungi, bacteria or algae in the shape of the U's block M. Any undergraduate student, graduate student, postdoc, or faculty member in a BTI lab is eligible to win "bragging rights and a $300 gift certificate" to buy lunch for the lab. The contest runs until Dec. 15, 2017 and requires contenders to share their results on Twitter. To learn more or enter, click here


logo for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Wolf Addresses NASEM Conference on Return of Results

September 5, 2017

On Wednesday, Sept. 6 and Thursday, Sept. 7 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is presenting a workshop and webcast to examine issues related to the return of results to research participants. The committee hosting the workshop is chaired by frequent Consortium collaborator Dr. Jeffrey Botkin, MD, MPH (University of Utah; former chair of the Committee on Bioethics for the American Academy of Pediatrics; former member of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, or SACRHP), and is comprised of 16 distinguished individuals from across the US. The workshop will allow the committee members and the public to hear from research participants and individuals with expertise in research and clinical laboratory practice and institutional policies, applicable federal and state laws and regulations, and communications. Among those presenting is Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf, JD, who will be speaking about the laws and regulations governing the return of results. Prof. Wolf is one of three Principal Investigators on LawSeqSM, which is dedicated to mapping and shaping the law of genomics; her co-PIs are Ellen Wright Clayton, MD, JD (Vanderbilt University) and Frances Lawrenz, PhD (University of Minnesota). 


Red glass double helixes

Is it Clinical Care? Is it Research? Navigating the Difference in Genomic Medicine

August 31, 2017

A working group of the Clinical Sequencing Exploratory Research (CSER) Consortium has published the first-ever study describing new approaches to a crucial question: how should genomics investigators handle the increasingly blurry boundary between research and clinical practice? The article, "Navigating the Research-Clinical Interface in Genomic Medicine" appeared in Genetics in Medicine, which is published by ACMG. A new blog post by Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf, JD and Wylie Burke, MD, PhD (Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington) describes the results of CSER's empirical research. A 22-item survey was administered to investigate how investigators were conceptualizing and navigating the research-clinical interface. The results were striking: most of the studies describe a merger of research and clinical care. According to Wolf and Burke, "This challenges the conventional wisdom that while clinical care benefits patients, research seeks only generalizable knowledge." CSER encompasses nine National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded projects driving the translation of genomic sequencing into clinical care; among these are grants for which Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf serves as a co-Principal Investigator: Disclosing Genomic Incidental Findings in a Cancer Biobank (with Gloria Petersen of Mayo Clinic and Barbara Koenig of UCSF) and LawSeq: Building a Sound Legal Foundation for Translating Genomics into Clinical Application (with Ellen Wright Clayton of Vanderbilt and Frances Lawrenz of the University of Minnesota). Prof. Wolf was the lead author on the Genetics in Medicine article. 




New U Spinoff Company Aims to Accelerate Microbiome Discovery

August 28, 2017

The University of Minnesota has announced the launch of CoreBiome, a startup that provides analysis of microbial communities for agricultural, environmental and human health applications. The technology behind CoreBiome is based on discoveries by researchers Kenneth Beckman, PhD, director of the University of Minnesota Genomics Center (UMGC), a Consortium member; Daryl Gohl, PhD, research and development lead of UMGC; and Dan Knights, PhD, of the BioTechnology Institute, which is also a Consortium member. Understanding how communities of microbes behave, whether in the human gut, in farm animals and soil, or in natural waterways, can help scientists discover new ways to control and remedy harmful microbial processes or to facilitate beneficial ones. Microbiome research is leading to new opportunities that range from treating antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections to removing toxins from contaminated water. Some of the research that led to the startup was funded by the Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI), a Consortium member. Visit Corebiome's website here.  


Prof. Leigh Turner

Leigh Turner: Stem Cell Clinics Often Oversell Their Services

August 14, 2017

Prof. Leigh Turner, a faculty member at the Center for Bioethics (a Consortium member), is in the news for his expose of pay-to-participate stem cell studies listed on An article in the Star Tribune outlines the controversy, which has heated up in the aftermath of a Regenerative Medicine paper by Turner in which he questions the legitimacy of many of these trials. According to Turner, "You have these businesses that don’t have meaningful clinical research going on. There is a risk for fraud, in that people may be charged thousands of dollars to get an intervention that has no chance of working." In particular, Turner is concerned about the appearance of a government endorsement, since is run by the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA). Representatives of some of the companies Turner named have threatened litigation, though no suits have been filed. One cosmetic surgeon quoted in the Star Tribune article refutes Turner's argument: "We are not taking public funding and using it to our benefit while pursuing 'scientific' excellence — we’re actually trying to help our patients while learning about the treatments and the disease they have. Frankly, I think this is much more ethical than a major university with billions of endowment dollars taking millions of dollars of taxpayer money so they can build new offices and laboratories to further the study of stem cells." 


Cells edited using CRISPR

Study is First to Use CRISPR to Repair an Embryonic Mutation

August 2, 2017

The New York Times and other news outlets are reporting a major milestone in genetic engineering: the successful editing of genes in human embryos to repair a "common and serious disease-causing mutation." A new study published in Nature describes the research performed by a team led by biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health & Science University. Since the discovery of the CRISPR gene-editing method, scientists and ethicists have been discussing the opportunities and challenges presented by the procedure. Robin Lovell-Badge, a professor of genetics at the The Francis Crick Institute in London noted “You could certainly help families who have been blighted by a horrible genetic disease.” On the other hand, Consortium collaborator Henry Greely of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University notes ethical concerns related to "so-called germline engineering, which refers to changes made to embryo that are inheritable. 'If you’re in one camp, it’s a horror to be avoided, and if you’re in the other camp, it’s desirable,' Dr. Greely said. 'That’s going to continue to be the fight, whether it’s a feature or a bug.'" Read the entire article here