For the second year, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health, has selected the top tier of early career researchers with its 2020 Genomic Innovator Awards.
This year, the award went to 12 researchers around the U.S., with two from the University of Colorado Denver. Audrey Hendricks, PhD, and Katrina Claw, PhD, received over $1.5 million respectively over the next five years to pursue their research. Unlike traditional grants, the Genomic Innovator Awards invests in the researchers themselves, instead of a particular research project.
Genetic Databases for Everyone
Hendricks, associate professor in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, earned the award for her work to “Develop efficient methods to improve the use of genetic summary data.”
“There are huge genetic databases out there that not everyone can use effectively or accurately,” said Hendricks. “This is especially a problem for researchers and clinicians who use the resources in studies or health care of diverse or understudied ancestral populations. For example, databases can be used to help elucidate genetic variants that are the cause of a really rare genetic disease. But if an African American or Hispanic person comes in, this database will be less useful for that person than a person of European ancestry.”
“An individual’s ancestry does not fit into categorical, discreet groups,” continued Hendricks. “It’s more continuous. Ultimately, I aim to develop methods that will help make genetic resources useful regardless of ancestral background. And it turns out that having a better understanding of genetics across all people and ancestries helps to identify novel genetic results that benefit everyone.”
Creating an Ethical Framework for Indigenous Communities
Claw, assistant professor in the Division of Biomedical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Anschutz Medical Campus, earned the award for her work to “understand individual variation in drug response and provide guidelines for applying personalized medicine in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) [communities].”
“The history of research with Native communities has not been great,” said Claw, who is a member of the Navajo tribe. “Sometimes, it was helicopter research: scientists came into Indigenous communities, took blood samples, left, and never returned.”
Claw wants to shift and build a more ethical research framework for genomic studies. She believes researchers should consider and include the cultures they study from the outset: follow tribal protocols and regulations, get permission from Tribal institutional review boards (IRBs), and consent from community advisory boards before proposing a study. She believes scientists should ask if the results culturally important and beneficial to the communities. Then the scientists should ask themselves if they are taking into consideration Indigenous viewpoints when analyzing results.
“Many people believe scientists and studies are unbiased, but that’s not true—even in the way we interpret results,” said Claw. “Almost 80% of genomic studies have been conducted in populations of European ancestry. That’s quite a disparity. I’m proposing to look into genotype and phenotype of novel variants in Indigenous populations using in silico prediction and in vivo functional assays. When we begin to include diverse populations in pharmacogenetic and personalized medicine research, we’ll have a lot more information about our communities. From scientific standpoint, that’s a big innovation.”
Beyond her work at CU Anschutz, Claw is a member of the Native American Affairs Committee with SACNAS National and faculty with the Summer internship for Indigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) workshop.
Hendricks also has faculty and secondary appointments in several departments and programs at the Anschutz Medical Campus, including the Department of Biostatistics and Informatics at the Colorado School of Public Health, the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine, and the Human Medical Genetics and Genomics Program.