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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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GW to study genomes

The University will begin establishing a genomics center in the next few months that officials hope will help doctors develop a more accurate method of diagnosing and treating diseases.

In February, GW’s Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Catharine Birch McCormick Genomics Center, which will be housed in Ross Hall.

The mapping of a genome last year by U.S. researchers has allowed scientists to better understand the causes of disease and functions of the human body, said Allan Goldstein, chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology department. Genomes contain all of the biological information of a living organism.

Goldstein said recent genomic breakthroughs have created a new scientific discipline that requires expertise in biology, genetics, computer science and data management.

“There have been such tremendous advances in our understanding of the human genome and since we now know all of the genes, we will be able to develop a much more accurate way to diagnose and treat diseases,” Goldstein said.

By building a genomics center, GW will join a handful of other research institutions at the “cutting edge of genomic research” and be able to attract more accomplished students and professors, Goldstein said.

Although the mapping and sequencing of genomes has the potential to dramatically improve healthcare, it also raises a number of complex ethical, legal and social issues.

The possibility that parents can eliminate unwanted traits in their children and employers can screen potential workers for diseases has prompted a national debate about how genetic information should be properly used.

The U.S. Senate responded to these concerns last November by passing the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prevents insurance companies and employers from using a person’s genetic information to assess their health.

Although many issues about genome research remain unresolved, the establishment of a genomics center at GW will create endless scientific opportunities, said professor Eric Hoffman, an expert in the ethics of genetics.

“I think we all want to know what is particularly bad or good for our health, and these things are different for different people, so the move to personalized genetic predictive medicine should be welcomed,” he said.

“It is quite clear that we are moving to a pre-symptomatic, preventative way of doing medicine, and that genetic testing will be a huge part of determining who is at risk for what disorder,” he added.

GW professor Tim McCaffrey, who will serve as the center’s director, said the center would address the controversy surrounding genetics by supplementing its research curriculum with ethics classes.

“There are real concerns about the use of genomic information in patient care and the insurance industry, and the McCormick Center plans the work with top ethicists … and public policy experts in the (GW) School of Public Health,” he said.

The funding for the center will primarily come from a multimillion dollar gift bequeathed to the University by GW alumnus and former professor Catharine McCormick.

The gift will guarantee the center a minimum of $2.5 million in funding annually for the next five years, said McCaffrey, who added that additional grants would be sought from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.

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