The University Record, April 8, 2002

U-M launches Center for Genomics and Public Health

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

Why do some people suffer heart attacks in their 30s while others reach their 90s despite a lifetime of poor eating habits and lack of exercise? Should people with a family history of certain diseases undergo genetic testing to determine their predisposition to those illnesses? How do we best use the Human Genome Project and genetic information to promote health and disease prevention for the population as a whole?

The recently established Michigan Center for Genomics and Public Health at the U-M looks to increase the understanding of the human genome and its use in public health practices. The center is one of three funded nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Genomics refers to the study of all elements of the human genome and their functions in relation to health and disease.

Center researchers will examine population-based data to describe genes associated with cardiovascular disease, and to understand the interaction between these genes and other risk factors in disease development. The center will help state and local public health organizations better understand the genetic basis of disease and appropriately integrate findings into public health programs. In addition, the center will enhance the School of Public Health’s existing graduate training program in public health genetics, and will adapt courses offered through this program into a Web-based, distance-learning format to make them accessible to practicing public health professionals.

While genetic advances hold great promise for health promotion and disease prevention, careful consideration must be given to the ethical, legal and social issues that arise with the application of genetic advances.

“The mapping of the human genome and the explosion in the development and application of molecular genetic techniques provide new opportunities and challenges for public health. This center will help identify the opportunities and meet the challenges,” says center director Toby Citrin. “Society’s misuse of genetic information in the past has led to concerns about possible stigmatization and discrimination resulting from the knowledge of a person’s genetic profile. This center will work toward preventing these harms through education, identification of ethical and social issues, and development of policy recommendations.”

U-M’s prior experience confronting these ethical issues, especially its engagement of the community in dialogue about the use of genetic technologies, will help minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of translating genetic knowledge into effective public health approaches for disease prevention, Citrin says.

For example, the Community Dialogue Project, now nearing completion, has resulted in a series of policy recommendations recently shared with the Michigan Legislature, members of Congress and President Bush’s genetics adviser. Participants in the new Genomics and Public Health Center believe it is essential that community-driven policy initiatives keep pace with the rapidly expanding use of genetics technology.

The School of Public Health is collaborating with the Medical School and the Michigan Department of Community Health on the center, which will receive about $1 million over three years from the CDC.