Two teams of Duke University undergraduates will be doing health research that is normally the purview of graduate students and professors, including a cystic fibrosis infections project.
The 13 students from the Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine and the Center for Genomic and Computational Biology will focus on two issues facing precision health and medicine: infectious disease and family health history. One team will develop a new diagnostic tool for harmful bacteria in patients with CF.
The research efforts are part of an initiative called Bass Connections, which fosters a culture of collaboration, an entrepreneurial spirit and lessons learned in the classroom to solve pressing global problems. Anne and Robert Bass started the initiative with a $50 million gift.
Geoff Ginsburg, director of the applied genomics center, and Greg Wray, director of the genomic computational center, will be co-leaders of the teams, along with Greg Crawford, the genetic computational center’s assistant director, and Susanne Haga, an associate professor at the center.
Students on the infectious disease team will focus on identifying genetic markers that can distinguish between disease-causing and benign versions of Burkholderia bacteria. Their aim will be to develop fast and trustworthy diagnostic tools.
The Burkholderia genus includes bacteria that cause a number of infections, including those affecting immunocompromised or hospitalized patients. The genus also causes infections in lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
Team members said their long-term goal is to help create a personalized antimicrobial therapy for critically ill lung transplant patients.
“I’m looking forward to developing a diagnostic tool that can transform the lives of patients with cystic fibrosis who are considering lung transplant surgery,” team member Noelle Garbaccio said in a press release. “It’s exciting to know that we may be able to develop a practical product for clinical [doctor’s office] application.”
The other team will do family health history research. They will start by investigating the potential expansion of the MeTree, a mobile app that the genomic computational center developed. It is designed to collect a patient’s diet, exercise, smoking and treatment history. This information is essential to calculating a person’s risk of developing a disease in addition to their personal and family health history.
The app evaluates a user’s risk across more than 30 conditions, including hereditary forms of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. It should also help doctors and patients make treatment decisions.
“I was drawn to this team in particular for its intellectual diversity,” said another undergraduate student, Chris Zhou. “We have students spanning a wide range of programs and a mentor network consisting of teaching faculty, practicing physicians, and genetic counselors.”
The family health history team will seek doctor and patient perspectives on family health history, including their views on sharing health information to improve the gathering of family health history data.