Now Viewing: Genetics

What's Next Health: A Primer On Epigenetics

Jul 16, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Nancy Barrand

Randy Jirtle Photo courtesy of Duke University Medical Center

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers with big ideas about the future of health and health care. Nancy Barrand, RWJF’s senior adviser for program development, hosted Randy Jirtle, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison McArdle Laboratory, for a fascinating discussion about his work in epigenetics. Randy’s pioneering work in this field holds far-reaching implications for understanding and addressing the interplay between our genes and our environment. Randy answered follow up questions from Nancy to help lay out the basics behind epigenetics and what it might mean for our work moving forward. (Randy’s opinions are not necessarily those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Nancy Barrand: What is epigenetics?

Randy Jirtle: Epigenetics simply means above the genetics, and it refers to the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence. So we now know that chemical modifications of the DNA, and the histones the DNA wraps around, actually determine whether genes are functional or not functional. These chemical modifications can be caused by environmental factors that we are exposed to, such as the nutrients we eat—or those our mother ate—or stress at critical junctures in our development.

Understanding how a single epigenetic change can totally disrupt the action or expression of a gene is providing us for the first time with information that will ultimately allow people to prevent diseases and conditions from ever happening, rather than just treating them after they occur.

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Big News in Big Data: NIH Launches Largest and Most Diverse Genetics Database Ever Created

Feb 26, 2014, 7:21 PM, Posted by Nancy Barrand

biobank

Eighteen years ago this month, Big Data had a cultural coming out party when IBM's Deep Blue defeated international chess champion Gary Kasparov in a game. Gary Kasparov was a chess genius. But Deep Blue could mine the records of 700,000 grandmaster chess games and evaluate 200 million positions per second. The famously nimble Kasparov ultimately could not match the brute computing force of Deep Blue. 

This week we mark another historic milestone in Big Data history. This time, there is more at stake than bragging rights from a chess competition. 

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Building Big Data, One Swab at a Time

Mar 14, 2013, 2:00 PM, Posted by Nancy Barrand

Watch PBS NewsHour's feature, "Researchers Aim to Unlock Genetic Data Goldmine for Vital Medical Information," on the Kaiser biobank to learn more about how Catherine Schaefer, Neil Risch and 200,000 Kaiser members are accelerating the pace of medical research and bringing the future potential of genomics into the here and now.

When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched the Pioneer Portfolio, my colleagues and I asked ourselves what fields might produce the greatest potential game-changers for health and health care. Genomics was at the top of the list. The human genome had been mapped and fantastic discoveries had begun to blossom, but a true era of personalized medicine still seemed too far off.

So we set out to do what Pioneer does best. We explored and learned. We networked.  We asked a lot of questions.  And we began to hunt down ideas.

On March 12, PBS NewsHour did a feature story on one of the big ideas that came out of that process: the world’s largest, deepest, and most diverse “biobank.” It presented a good opportunity to share the backstory. 

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