Using Genome Data to Unlock Hispanic Health Risks

Friday, February 21, 2014

Biostatisticians at the UW School of Public Health are hoping to better understand the genetic risk factors for diseases such as diabetes and asthma in Hispanic/Latino populations in the US.

"We want to understand the differences between individuals — their genetic variations — and how they are relevant to health outcomes," said Dr. Tim Thornton, assistant professor of biostatistics and co-investigator for the UW's new Omics in Latinos Genetic Analysis Center. The center was recently established with a $4.5 million dollar grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Omics refers to the study of a set of biological molecules, while genomics is the study of the genome, an organism's complete set of genetic material. The UW's new center is part of the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, a multi-center effort that aims to identify the patterns, causes and risk factors for disease in Hispanic/Latino populations.

Sequencing the genomes of thousands of individuals gives rise to large-scale data sets containing the information of hundreds of thousands of genetic variants. Genetic variants occur in approximately one out of every 100 people. Using biostatistical methods, scientists can determine which variants are associated with disease and how they affect the probability that someone would get the disease.

Dr. Bruce Weir, professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics, said faculty and professional staff are developing new statistical methods to apply to the genomic data of about 16,000 Latino participants. "These kinds of studies have been going on for a long time, traditionally in European-ancestry people," Weir said. "It's important to extend them to Latinos." Hispanics/Latinos have a rich cultural and ancestral diversity, he added, with roots among European, African and Native American groups.

UW researchers also plan to tap into a resource called 1000 Genomes, launched by the National Institutes of Health to sequence the genomes of more than 2,000 individuals from 26 populations around the world, from Punjabi to Puerto Rican. Brian Browning, adjunct associate professor of biostatistics, has developed a computer program called BEAGLE, one of several pieces of software used to analyze data from 1000 Genomes to complement information obtained from the UW studies.

Weir, Thornton and colleagues are hoping to find risk factors associated with diseases such as diabetes and asthma, which have a high prevalence among Latino populations. They will also investigate the genetic variants associated with conditions such as sleep apnea and adult hearing loss. Very little is known about the genetic basis of these conditions.