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Paving the Way for Next Phases of Experimental and Human Genetics


Established in 2014, the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics (GGI) is a new basic science department within the College of Medicine. The department is comprised of Robert W. Williams, Ph.D., an experimental neurogeneticist and its founding chair; Professors Lu Lu, M.D., and Byron Jones, Ph.D., both of whom are experts in addiction and toxicogenetics; and three new faculty; Megan Mulligan, Ph.D., a molecular neurogeneticist; Athena Starlard-Davenport, Ph.D., a cancer pharmacogeneticist; and Claire Simpson, Ph.D., a statistical geneticist with expertise in developmental and eye diseases. GGI’s mission is to carry out high impact research in genetics and related fields and to provide training in precision medicine and systems genetics. Furthermore, its goal is for research to have a positive impact on health, disease prevention, and best options for treatment, in the context of unique genetics and family histories. Williams notes that GGI hopes to grow rapidly over the next five years with addition of primary and collaborative joint appointments with other departments and colleges at the University.

“Despite our small size, we already have terrific interactions with faculty in Pediatrics, Preventive Medicine, Anatomy and Neurobiology, Ophthalmology, and the College of Nursing. Our goal is to reach out to all faculty keen to add genetics into their research programs. Thanks to many new recruits across campus with expertise in genetics, we are now able to collaborate much more effectively with clinicians at regional hospitals, in particular, with teams at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Methodist University Hospital System, Regional One Health, and the West Cancer Clinic,” says Williams.

Members of the GGI department are actively involved in large-scale national and international collaborations and training programs in genetics, bioinformatics and precision medicine according to Williams. The department is also aiming to build its biotechnology resources.

“The key is to get patient consents and to biobank invaluable human tissues linked to great medical record data for advanced genetic and genomic analysis. We are looking to lead, especially in the area disparity health care.”

Acting as a catalyst for both research and teaching initiatives, the GGI department has excelled in mouse genetics and genomics since its formation. The department is now looking to grow its strength in human genetics. GGI will be working with the College of Graduate Health Sciences to fire up a new graduate training program in the fields of precision medicine and systems genetics to help develop more effective ways to treat patients based on genetics. Furthermore, Williams notes that adding human geneticists gives GGI a jumpstart for providing UTHSC a foundation for the next phase of medical research.

“Genomics is now big business and given the State’s support for biomedical research and commercialization, there is significant potential economic impact. We are looking to explore ways in which we can in-source these advanced technologies—genomics, proteomics, metabolomics—to Tennessee and the Memphis area instead of outsourcing the core biotechnologies to the coasts. That means a lot of collaboration and negotiation with our partners in Tennessee.”

The formation of the Genetics, Genomics and Informatics department will improve research prospects in the next wave of human and clinical genetics, all while building on UTHSC’s current strengths in experimental, molecular and quantitative genetics. With the expansion of resources at UTHSC, GGI and the whole UT genetics community has the ability to be at the forefront of next phases of experimental and clinical genetics.