Alcohol, Author Interviews, Endocrinology, Genetic Research / 28.06.2018 Interview with: Toni Pak, Ph.D. Professor and Department Chair Department of Cell and Molecular Physiology Loyola University Chicago Maywood, Ill What is the background for this study? Response: We have known for many years that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to developmental delays and birth defects in offspring. However, our data demonstrate that drinking large quantities of alcohol in a “binge” fashion before pregnancy can also impact future offspring and importantly, this is true for drinking behaviors of both parents, not just the mother. Our previous data support the idea that alcohol is affecting the parental sperm and eggs to induce these modifications in the offspring, but this most recent work shows the extent of those effects on social behavior, pubertal maturation, and stress hormones as the offspring grow to adulthood. This means that the risky behaviors of young people, such as the extremely popular practice of binge drinking, have potentially far-reaching consequences for generations to come. (more…)
Author Interviews, Cancer Research, Genetic Research, Nature, Prostate Cancer / 13.06.2018 Interview with: Fredrick R. Schumacher, PhD, MPH. Associate Professor, Department of Population & Quantitative Health Sciences Case Western Reserve University Cleveland What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?  Response: Our study examines the genetic underpinnings of prostate cancer initiation using technology to test variants across the genome. Our study focused on men of European ancestry and included over 80,000 men with prostate cancer and 60,000 men without disease. We discovered 63 novel genetic variants associated with prostate cancer risk, which increases our knowledge of prostate cancer genetic risk factors by more than 60%. A genetic risk score created from the combination of 163 new and known prostate cancer risk variants revealed men with the highest genetic risk score are nearly seven times more likely to develop disease compared to the average man. Additionally, men with the lowest genetic risk score have a 85% risk reduction of developing prostate cancer compared to the average. Lastly, these new discoveries uncover several biological mechanisms involved in the initiation of prostate cancer. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Schizophrenia, UCSD / 12.06.2018 Interview with: Marcelo Pablo Coba PhD Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute Keck School of Medicine of USC What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia (SCZ) are complex brain disorders where a multitude or risk factors have been implicated in contributing to the disease, with a low number of genes that have been strongly implicated in a very low number of cases. One of these genes is Disrupted in schizophrenia 1 (DISC1), which was first described in 2000 as a balanced translocation that segregates with schizophrenia and related psychiatric disorders in a large Scottish family. Because DISC1 does not have an identified protein function such as enzymatic, channel, transporter, etc… the field moved to try to understand what proteins are associated (physically connected) to DISC1 and to try to explain DISC1 function through the function of its protein interactors. This means that if DISC1 binds proteins X, Y and Z, then mutations in the DISC1 gene should affect the functions of   these proteins. Therefore, there has been much effort in trying to identify DISC1 protein interactors. However this task has not been straightforward. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research / 09.06.2018 Interview with: “The human Brain” by Kristian Mollenborg is licensed under CC BY 2.0David Haussler PhD Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Distinguished Professor, Biomolecular Engineering Scientific Director, UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute Scientific Co-Director, California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences  and Sofie Salama, PhD Research Scientist in BIomolecular Engineering Howard Hughes Medical Institute Senior Scientist What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Dr. Haussler:  Researchers specializing in this area are interested understanding which evolutionary changes in our genome underlie human-specific brain features including our large (3X greater than chimpanzee) brain. It has been my personal dream to peer into human evolution at the level of individual genes and gene functions.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Dermatology, Genetic Research / 22.05.2018 Interview with: de Boer Founding Chief Executive Officer ProQR What is the background for this study? Would you briefly explain what is meant by dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa? Response: Dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa (DEB) is caused by a mutation in the COL7A1 gene which is responsible for the formation of a protein called type VII collagen (C7). This protein helps bind the inner and outer layers of the skin together. Mutations in one part of COL7A1 gene, exon 73, are the most common cause of DEB resulting in a non-functional C7 protein. ProQR's QR-313 is designed to skip exon 73 of the COL7A1 gene, leading to a shortened C7 protein called C7Δ73. The current studies are intended to determine whether C7Δ73 functions the same as normal C7 protein. This mechanism can hopefully restore normal skin function for DEB patients. DEB is a rare genetic skin disease characterized by easy blistering of the skin, poorly healing wounds and skin infections. DEB is present at birth and in severe cases leads to skin cancer, which can significantly reduce a patient’s lifespan. There are currently no treatments for DEB that target the underlying cause of the disease. The current standard of care consists of expensive time-consuming wound care, antibiotics to prevent infection and pain medications. As a result, this disease presents a huge burden to the patients themselves, as well as people who help with daily care. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Pediatrics, Weight Research / 22.05.2018 Interview with: “Great Grandmother” by David Amsler is licensed under CC BY 2.0Rebecca Somerville MB BCh BAO, BMedSci, MRCPI, MPH, PhD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science University College Dublin Dublin, Ireland What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?  Response: Rates of obesity in the Western world have increased dramatically over recent decades. The negative health consequences of obesity are well known and significant amounts of research have been conducted into the causes and possible solutions. While it is clear that there have been massive changes in diet and physical activity at a societal level that are primarily responsible for this 'obesity epidemic', it is less clear the extent to which obesity, once established, or risk factors for same, can be perpetuated down generations. Family studies lend opportunity to explore these questions, however there are few world wide which incorporate 3 generations. We therefore sought to examine patterns of central adiposity, as measured by waist circumference, between grandparents and their grandchildren, separately in maternal and paternal lines. We were able to utilize prospectively collected data from the Lifeways Cross-Generation Cohort Study. This is a longitudinal birth cohort, established in Ireland in 2001, involving up to 7 members of the same family (mother, father, child and 4 grandparents). In the 589 families where a child had a waist circumference measurement we found that, at the age of both 5 and 9, there was a direct relationship between the waist circumference of the maternal grandmother and her grandchild (both male and female). This remained after adjustment for a wide range of confounding variables including mother's waist circumference. There was no relationship seen with any of the other grandparents. (more…)
Author Interviews, Exercise - Fitness, Genetic Research, Heart Disease / 19.05.2018 Interview with: Prof. Patricia Munroe PhD Professor of Molecular Medicine William Harvey Research Institute Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry Queen Mary University of London What is the background for this study? Response: Over the years, it has become increasingly evident that impaired capacity to increase heart rate during exercise and reduce heart rate following exercise are important predictors of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. A person's capability to regulate their heart rate is the result of complex interactions of biological systems, including the autonomic nervous and hormonal systems. Prior work has demonstrated that genetic factors significantly contribute to variations in resting heart rate among different individuals, but less was known about the genetic factors modulating the response of heart rate to exercise and recovery. (more…)
AHA Journals, Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Heart Disease, Lipids, Vanderbilt / 18.05.2018 Interview with: Wei-Qi Wei, MD, PhD Assistant Professor Department of Biomedical Informatics Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN 37203 What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: The study was motived by the clinical observation that some patients develop coronary heart disease events despite taking statins, one of our most effective drugs to reduce cardiovascular risk. We collected data within the eMERGE network of people taking statins and monitored them for development of coronary heart disease events over time.  We  conducted a genome-wide association study of those with events compared to those without events. Our results showed that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) on the LPA gene were associated with a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease events. Individuals with the variant were 50% more likely to have an event. More importantly, even among patients who achieved ideal on-treatment LDL cholesterol levels (<70 mg/dL), the association remained statistically significant. We then did a phenome-wide association study to see if other diseases or conditions were associated with these LPAvariants. The major associated conditions were all cardiovascular. This sort of study can highlight potential other indications for a drug targeting this pathway and suggest potential adverse events that might be experienced from targeting this pathway. Clearly, more and larger studies will be needed to truly understand the potential risks and benefits of a future drug targeting this pathway.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, JAMA, Schizophrenia / 17.05.2018 Interview with: Tobias Kaufmann PhD Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT), KG Jebsen Centre for Psychosis Research, Division of Mental Health and Addiction, Oslo University Hospital & Institute of Clinical Medicine University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Over the past years, a lot of work has pointed toward impaired brain networks in schizophrenia. With this work we assessed brain network stability across different loads of a cognitive task using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain. Based on our earlier work on adolescents with pre-clinical signs of mental illness who showed decreased stability of networks across different tasks and conditions, we hypothesized that brain networks in adults with schizophrenia show similar properties of decreased stability. Our results confirmed this hypothesis. Stability was reduced in several large-scale brain networks across the sampled age range from early adulthood to the sixties. Further, network stability was associated with polygenic risk for schizophrenia as well as cognitive task performance. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, JAMA, UCSF / 12.05.2018 Interview with: Allison W. Kurian, M.D., M.Sc. Associate Professor of Medicine (Oncology) and of Health Research and Policy Director, Women’s Clinical Cancer Genetics Program Stanford University School of Medicine Stanford, CA 94305-5405 What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Changes in genetic sequencing technology and regulation have allowed much cheaper testing of many more genes in recent years. We investigated how these changes have affected hereditary cancer risk evaluation in women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The main findings are that more comprehensive multiple-gene sequencing tests have rapidly replaced more limited tests of two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) only. This has helped patients by doubling the chance of finding an important gene mutation that can change their treatment options. However, there are important gaps in how this new, more comprehensive sequencing is used: more testing delays and more uncertain results, particularly among racial/ethnic minority women.  (more…)
Author Interviews, BMJ, Genetic Research, Pediatrics / 10.05.2018 Interview with: “Newborn” by Brad Carroll is licensed under CC BY 2.0Dr Sian Taylor-Phillips MPhys, PhD Associate Professor Screening and Test Evaluation / NIHR Career Development Fellow Division of Health Sciences Warwick Medical School University of Warwick Coventry What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: In newborn blood spot screening a small amount of blood is taken from newborn babies heels, and this is tested for a range of rare diseases. The idea is to detect each disease earlier when it is more treatable. However, it would be better not to test for some diseases, for example if the test is inaccurate so worries parents that their baby may have a serious illness when they do not. Some countries test for as few as 5 diseases and others as many as 50. In this study we investigated how different countries choose which diseases to test for. We found that many national recommendations on whether to screen newborn babies for rare diseases do not assess the evidence on the key benefits and harms of screening. Evidence about the accuracy of the test was not considered in 42% of recommendations, evidence about whether early detection at screening has health benefits was not consulted in 30% of recommendations, and evidence around the potential harm of overdiagnosis where babies have variants of the disease that would never have caused any symptoms or ill effects was not considered in 76% of recommendations. We also found through meta-analysis that when a systematic review was used to bring together the evidence then countries were less likely to recommend screening for the disease. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Weight Research / 09.05.2018 Interview with: “Mmm...hamburgers” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0Dr. Peter Kühnen Institute for Experimental Pediatric Endocrinology Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin Berlin Germany What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?  Response: We are focusing our interest on rare monogenic forms of obesity. The hormones leptin and MSH are playing a pivotal role for the regulation of satiety and body weight. Mutations within this pathway, e.g. in the leptin receptor gene, are leading to severe hyperphagia and early onset obesity.  Although tremendous effort it is extremely difficult for the affected patients to stabilize their body weight for a longer period of time. For this reason it has been analyzed within this investigated initiated trial whether patients with a leptin receptor mutation benefit from a treatment with the MC4R agonist setmelanotide. The treatment led to a reduction of the initially increased hunger feeling and to a reduction of body weight. Additionally, we identified molecular evidences that a specific signaling cascade of the MSH receptor (MC4R) is of importance for the regulation of body weight. (more…)
AACR, Author Interviews, Genetic Research / 18.04.2018 Interview with: Ed Liu, M.D President and CEO The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: A few years ago we and others identified a complex genomic instability profile commonly found in the genomes of breast, ovarian and endometrial carcinomas, which is characterized by hundreds of isolated head-to-tail duplications of DNA segments, called tandem duplications. We refer to this configuration as the tandem duplicator phenotype, or TDP. In this study, we perform a meta-analysis of over 2,700 cancer genomes from over 30 different tumor types and provide a detailed description of six different types of TDP, distinguished by the presence of tandem duplications of different sizes. Collectively, these profiles are found in ~50% of breast, ovarian and endometrial carcinomas as well as 10-30% of adrenocortical, esophageal, stomach and lung adeno-carcinomas. We show that distinct genetic abnormalities associate with the distinct TDPs, clearly suggesting that distinct molecular mechanisms are driving TDP formation. In particular, we provide strong evidence of a casual relationship between joint abrogation of the BRCA1 and TP53 tumor suppressor genes and the emergence of a short-span (~11 Kb) TDP profile. We also observe a significant association between hyper-activation of the CCNE1 pathway and TDP with medium-span (~230 Kb) tandem duplications, and between mutation of the CDK12 gene and medium- and large-span TDP (coexisting 230 Kb and 1.7 Kb tandem duplications). Importantly, we find that different forms of TDP result in the perturbation of alternative sets of cancer genes, with short-span TDP profiles leading to the loss of tumor suppressor genes via double transections, and larger-span TDP profiles resulting in the duplication (i.e. copy number gain) of oncogenes and gene regulatory elements, such as super-enhancers and disease-associated SNPs.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Heart Disease, JAMA / 06.04.2018 Interview with: Stella Aslibekyan, PhD Associate Professor PhD Program Director Department of Epidemiology University of Alabama at Birmingham What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: When the human genome was sequenced in 2003, there were somewhat unrestrained expectations of unraveling all etiologic mysteries and discovering breakthrough treatments. Needless to say, that did not happen, in part because individual genetic variants can only account for a small fraction of trait variability. Since then, epigenetics-- the study of mitotically heritable changes in gene expression-- has emerged as another promising avenue for understanding disease risk. The best studied epigenetic process in humans is DNA methylation, and earlier studies (including some from our group) have shown interesting associations between changes in methylation in specific genomic regions and cardiovascular disease traits, e.g. plasma cholesterol levels. In this project, we have combined DNA methylation data on thousands of individuals from multiple international cohorts and interrogated epigenetic contributions to circulating tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa), a marker of systemic inflammation. We identified and replicated several epigenomic markers of TNFa, linked them to variation in gene expression, and showed that these methylation changes (which were located in interferon pathway genes) were predictive of coronary heart disease later in life. Interestingly, the variants we discovered were not sequence-dependent (in other words, they were not associated with any genetic mutations), highlighting the role of the environment. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Ophthalmology / 05.04.2018 Interview with: Wen-Tao Deng, Ph.D. Department of Ophthalmology, College of Medicine| University of Florida, Gainesville, FL What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Blue cone monochromay (BCM) is a devastating vision disorder characterized by loss function of both L- and M-cones due to mutations in the L- and M-opin gene cluster on the X chromosome. BCM patients display severely reduced visual acuity, loss of color-vision, myopia, nystagmus, and minimally detectable cone-mediated electroretinogram. In our studies, we showed that an M-opsin knockout mouse model resembles human BCM, and expression of either human M- or L-opsin individually or combined through adeno-associated viral vector promotes regrowth of cone outer segments and rescues M-cone function in the treated M-opsin dorsal retin (more…)
Author Interviews, Colon Cancer, Genetic Research, JAMA / 03.04.2018 Interview with: Heather Hampel, MS, LGC Associate Director, Division of Human Genetics Associate Director, Biospecimen Research Professor, Internal Medicine Licensed Genetic Counselor The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center Columbus, OH  4322  What is the background for this study?  What are the main findings? Response: The background is that we had recently shown that some colorectal cancer patients who underwent traditional screening for Lynch syndrome were eventually found to have double somatic (two acquired) mutations in the MMR genes and they did not have Lynch syndrome at all. This was discovered after their tumor had already had MSI and/or IHC screening test, followed by MLH1 methylation and/or BRAF testing, followed by germline DNA testing on a blood sample from the patient for MMR gene mutations, then finally by sequencing their tumor. This gave us the idea to reverse the sequence and start with tumor sequencing since it might streamline testing, save time, and prevent several other tests. In addition, we knew that all stage IV colorectal cancer are already supposed to have tumor sequencing of the KRAS, NRAS, and BRAF genes and MSI testing for treatment purposes. Our hypothesis was that an upfront tumor sequencing test could replace all these separate tests with similar sensitivity and specificity. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Nature, OBGYNE, UCLA / 22.03.2018 Interview with: Marlena Fejzo, PhD Aassociate researche David Geffen School of Medicine UCLA. What is the background for this study? Response: Most women experience some nausea and vomiting of pregnancy, and the worst 2% are diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum which is associated with poor maternal and fetal outcomes. I had HG in 2 pregnancies. In my second pregnancy my HG was so severe that I could not move without vomiting and did not keep any food or water down for 10 weeks. I was put on a feeding tube, but ultimately lost the baby in the second trimester. I am a medical scientist by training so I looked into what was known about HG. At the time, very little was known, so I decided to study it. I partnered with the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation (HER) and we did a survey on family history of .Hyperemesis Gravidarum that provided evidence to support a role for genes. I collected saliva samples from HG patients and their unaffected acquaintances to do a DNA study. Then I partnered with the personal genetics company, 23andMe to do a genome scan and validation study, which identified 2 genes, GDF15 and IGFBP7, linked to HG. (more…)
Author Interviews, Biomarkers, Breast Cancer, Cancer Research, Genetic Research / 26.02.2018 Interview with: Maureen E. Murphy, Ph.D. Program Leader and Professor Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis and Subhasree Basu PhD Postdoctoral researcher The Wistar Institute Philadelphia, PA 19104 What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Unlike most other genes that are intimately involved in the cause of cancer, the p53 gene displays considerable genetic variation; in other words, p53 is unusual among cancer genes in that the amino acids in p53 protein can frequently differ amongst different populations and ethnic groups. Additionally, unlike most other tumor suppressor genes, when p53 is mutated in a tumor, as it is in 50% of human cancers, that mutant protein now has a positive function in cancer progression, changing tumor metabolism and promoting tumor metastasis. In this study, the authors analyze for the first time the impact of a common genetic variant in p53 (single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP) in the ability of mutant p53 to promote tumor metabolism and metastasis, and they find significant differences.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Breast Cancer, Genetic Research / 19.02.2018 Interview with: Amanda Toland, PhD, Cancer biology and genetics researcher of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center -- Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: The Breast Information Core (or BIC) is a database that catalogs BRCA1 and BRCA2 sequenced variants.  The BIC is hosted by the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH and has a steering committee that oversees the BIC and has members from Europe, the middle East, Australia and the US.  In BIC SC discussions, we learned that there are differences in how BRCA1/2 clinical is testing between countries. To characterize this variation, we performed an international survey of 86 genetic testing labs from around the world. Our main findings are that there were many variations between testing laboratories.  These include: technologies differed for finding “large” genetic sequence variants, what parts of the genes were assessed, how genetic variants were classified as disease associated or not being associated with diseases, if genetic sequencing information was shared in public databases and testing volume. (more…)
Author Interviews, Dengue, Genetic Research, PLoS / 16.02.2018 Interview with: Luisa Pereira PhD Institute for Research and Innovation in Health University of Porto What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: By using admixture mapping along the genome in Thai cohorts, we were able to identify new candidate genes conferring protection/susceptibility to dengue fever. A very interesting result was that the set of genes differed with the dengue phenotype: genes coding proteins that may link to the virus, conditioning its entrance in the host cells and mobility therein were associated with the less severe phenotype; genes related with blood vessels permeability were associated with the dengue shock syndrome.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, OBGYNE / 08.02.2018

“Pregnancy 1” by operalynn is licensed under CC BY Interview with: Professor Jane Halliday, PhD Group Leader, Public Health Genetics Genetics Murdoch Childrens Research Institute The Royal Children’s Hospital Parkville, Victoria  AUS What is the background for this study? Response: The aim of the study was to examine the choice that pregnant women make about the amount of genetic information they want from their pregnancy. Women who underwent prenatal testing via chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis were recruited from across seven sites in Victoria. Provision of this choice is not routinely offered but we thought it was important to look at this issue carefully, in a real-time setting, because, over the last five years, advances in technology have transformed how genetic abnormalities can be detected during a pregnancy.  Rather than examining genetic material (chromosomes) down the microscope, it is now possible to use a technique called ‘microarray’ which can do the analysis with 100 times greater depth than can be achieved using a microscope. The plus side is that the microarray technique can detect a far greater number of potentially important genetic differences; but a down side is that it can also detect many changes for which the impact on the health of the baby is unknown or uncertain. Examples of genetic differences that carry certainty are major chromosome abnormalities such as the trisomies e.g. Down Syndrome, and deletions associated with severe intellectual disability in 100% of cases, e.g. 1p.36 deletion. Uncertain findings are the various small deletions and duplications that are known to only have an adverse outcome in 10-20% of people with them. All participants were provided with a decision aid which described in detail the choice available in regards to the genetic information. The options were ‘targeted’, where only the information that would affect health of the baby was provided, or ‘extended’, where all information, even the uncertain aspects, was provided. Participants were asked to read the decision aid, complete a ten minute survey along with indicating their choice of genetic information. (more…)
Author Interviews, Biomarkers, BMJ, Genetic Research, Prostate Cancer, UCSD / 29.01.2018 Interview with: “DNA” by Caroline Davis2010 is licensed under CC BY 2.0Tyler Seibert, MD, PhD Radiation Oncology Center for Multimodal Imaging & Genetics UC San Diego What is the background for this study? Response: Prostate cancer is an extremely common condition in men. Many die from it each year, and many others live with debilitating pain caused by prostate cancer. Screening for prostate cancer with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing can be effective, but there are concerns with the test.
  • First, screening everyone gives a large proportion of false-positive results, and those men end up undergoing unnecessary procedures such as prostate biopsy. S
  • econd, a significant portion of men who develop prostate cancer will develop a slow-growing form of the disease that is likely not life-threatening and may not require treatment. These concerns have led to a drop in prostate cancer screening. But avoiding screening leaves a large number of men vulnerable to diagnosis of an aggressive prostate cancer at a later stage, when it is more difficult—or impossible—to be cured. Doctors are left to guess which of their patients are at risk of aggressive disease and at which age they need to start screening those patients.
Our study sought to develop a tool to provide men and their doctors with objective, personalized information about each man’s risk of prostate cancer. Based on the man’s genetics, we wanted to predict the risk of aggressive prostate cancer and at what age in his life that risk becomes elevated. (more…)
Author Interviews, Education, Genetic Research / 26.01.2018

“Reading is fun!” by Isaac Wedin is licensed under CC BY Interview with: Bruno Sauce, PhD and Louis D. Matzel, PhD Department of Psychology, Program in Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Rutgers University New Jersey, USA What is the background for this study? Response: Scientists have known for decades that intelligence has a high heritability, which means that much of the individual differences in IQ we see in people are due to genetic differences. Heritability is a value that ranges from 0.0 (meaning no genetic component) to 1.0 (meaning that the trait is completely heritable). For example, the heritability of breast cancer is estimated at 0.27; the heritability of body mass index is 0.59; and the heritability of major depression is 0.40. In comparison, the heritability of IQ is estimated to be as high as 0.8 – quite a high value! More recently, however, there have been studies showing that intelligence has a high malleability: the studies cover cognitive gains consequent to adoption/immigration, changes in IQ’s heritability across life span and socioeconomic status, gains in IQ over time from societal and scientific progress, the slowdown of age-related cognitive decline, the gains in intelligence from early education, differences in average IQ between countries due to wealth and development, and gains in intelligence that seem to happen from working memory training. Intelligence being both highly heritable and highly malleable is seemingly paradoxical, and this paradox has been the source of continuous controversy among scientists. Why does it matter? Because IQ predicts many important outcomes in life, such as academic grades, income, social mobility, happiness, marital stability and satisfaction, general health, longevity, reduced risk of accidents, and reduced risk of drug addiction (among many other outcomes). A clear understanding of the genetic and environmental causes of variation in intelligence is critical for future research, and its potential implications (and applications) for society are immense. (more…)
Author Interviews, Cognitive Issues, Genetic Research, JAMA, Medical Imaging, Mental Health Research / 25.01.2018 Interview with: “The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes” by Victor Soto is licensed under CC BY 2.0Dag Alnaes, PhD Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research KG Jebsen Centre for Psychosis Research Division of Mental Health and Addiction, Oslo University Hospital Oslo, Norway What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: The transition from childhood to adulthood is characterized by swift and dramatic changes, both in our environment and in our brains. This period of life also coincides with the onset of many mental disorders. To gain a better understanding of why, the clinical neurosciences must attempt to disentangle the complex and dynamic interactions between genes and the environment and how they shape our brains. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict which individuals are at risk before clinical symptoms appear. Advanced brain imaging has been proposed to represent one promising approach for such early detection, but there is currently no robust imaging marker that allows us to identify individuals at risk with any clinically relevant degree of certainty. Our study shows that self-reported early signs of mental illness are associated with specific patterns of brain fiber pathways in young people, even if they may not fulfill criteria for a formal diagnosis or are currently in need of treatment.  (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, Neurology / 25.01.2018 Interview with: Ona Bloom PhD “Duluth Boat Show - Sea Lamprey Booth” by USFWSmidwest is licensed under CC BY 2.0Associate Professor, Center for Autoimmune, Musculoskeletal and Hematopoietic Diseases, The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Medicine, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: Scientists have known for years that an ancient species of fish called the lamprey has a remarkable ability to rebuild their spinal cord after it’s been severed. After the lamprey spinal cord is cut, they recover from paralysis to fully swimming again in about twelve weeks, without taking any medicines or other treatments. We are studying the lamprey because we want to know the recipe of molecular ingredients that supports successful recovery after spinal cord injury. The genome of this animal was reported about 5 years ago, in a publication led by my colleagues Dr. Jeramiah Smith at the University of Kentucky and Dr. Weiming Li at Michigan State University.  It turns out that many aspects of the lamprey genome are similar to ours, particularly in the central nervous system. Therefore, we think it is a reasonable expectation that what we learn from lamprey could give us some relevant clues about what might be different about the responses in mammals and other animals that are not good at regenerating their spinal cord. In this study, we found that the expression of many genes in the spinal cord and brain of lampreys change during their recovery from spinal cord injury. Some of the genes that get activated are similar to what happens when our peripheral nervous system is injured, which is better at regenerating than the central nervous system. We also identified that a pathway called the Wnt pathway plays an important role in the regeneration and recovery process. This is a large, complex network of genes that are important in many biological processes, from embryological development in fruit flies to cancer in humans. (more…)
Author Interviews, Genetic Research, JAMA, Neurology, Parkinson's / 25.01.2018 Interview with: Rachel Saunders-Pullman, MD, MPH Associate Professor of Neurology Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Chief, Movement Disorders, Mount Sinai Beth Israel Co-Director Clinical/Translational Research and Research Mentoring Movement Disorders, Department of Neurology, Mount Sinai Beth Israel New York, NY 10003 What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?  Response: There is a diversity in causes of Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and this may lead to heterogeneity in drug response. While LRRK2 PD due to G2019S mutations may fully mimic idiopathic PD (IPD), cross-sectional study suggests that the course may be slightly milder than IPD. Further, the pathology is heterogeneous with a minority not demonstrating Lewy bodies, and this may also correspond to less severe non-motor features. To better understand the course of PD associated with the G2019S LRRK2 mutation (the most common LRRK2 mutation), we evaluated motor and cognitive progression in individuals enrolled in the LRRK2 Ashkenazi Jewish Consortium. Subjects were recruited from a Center in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sourasky Medical Center, and from two centers in New York, Columbia University and Mount Sinai Beth Israel. 144 participants were LRRK2 mutation carriers and 401 were not. We utilized all study visits, and constructed linear mixed-effects models to estimate the association between harboring the LRRK2 mutation and rate of change of both motor features- as assessed by the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS), and cognition, as measured by the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Scale (MoCA). Models adjusted for sex, site, age, disease duration and (for the motor models) cognitive score. We found a small but significant difference in rate of progression, with LRRK2 PD progressing at 0.69 points/year, and IPD at 1.06 points/year. While the cognitive decline was also less in the LRRK2 PD (-0.10 vs. -0.19 in the IPD, this difference was not statistically different (p=0.08). (more…)
Author Interviews, Emory, Genetic Research, JAMA, Ophthalmology / 24.01.2018 Interview with: Eldon E. Geisert, PhD Professor of Ophthalmology Emory School of Medicine What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? Response: In the late 1990s a group of doctors began a study of glaucoma patients to determine if there were phenotypes that are predictive for developing glaucoma. In this Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS) one of the highly correlated ocular traits was central corneal thickness (CCT). The early clinical studies found that people with thinner corneas were at a higher risk of developing glaucoma. In two large studies, examining thousands of people a number of genes were identified that were risk factors for glaucoma or that controlled CCT in humans. In both cases the identified genes accounted for less than 10% of the genetic risk for glaucoma and less than for 10% of the genetic control for CCT. There was little data linking the genetic control of CCT to the glaucoma risk. Our group has taken an indirect approach to the question, using well-defined mouse genetic system to identify genes modulating CCT and then interrogating human glaucoma data to determine if these genes are associated with glaucoma risk.   (more…)
Author Interviews, FDA, Genetic Research, Ophthalmology / 15.01.2018 Interview with: Dr. Stephen Rose PhD Chief Research Officer Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) Dr. Rose comments on the announcement of the FDA approval of voretigene neparvovec (LUXTURNA™) gene therapy for inherited blindness due to mutations in the RPE65 gene. What is the background for this announcement? What were the main findings from the study? Response: While it has been 30 years since the RPE65 gene was identified as causing Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, this shows that it is possible to have an effective gene therapy for an inherited disease. As the first gene therapy for the eye or for an inherited disease, LUXTURNA is a historic milestone in the search for cures for all inherited retinal diseases (IRDs). As a one-time gene therapy, LUXTURNA will not only be life-changing for patients with vision loss due to mutations in the RPE65 gene, it also provides critical momentum for gene therapies - for the eye and other diseases - now in the clinic.  (more…)