Genomics research raises tough questions

dna sequence

By Susan M. Wolf

Genome and exome sequencing are generating a flood of genetic information about research participants and patients. That information is typically regarded as private, and both researchers and clinicians have stringent responsibilities to protect confidentiality. But families are beginning to come forward, asking whether individual genomic information about family members who have been research participants or patients has implications for their own health. Rsearchers and clinicians are increasingly facing a tough choice – do they protect the privacy of the research subject or patient’s genomic information, or do they share that information with relatives?

Individuals who have a certain mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for example, are at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Or they may carry the variant for malignant hyperthermia, placing them at risk for a potentially catastrophic reaction to a commonly used anesthetic. There are any number of genetic variants that may be discovered in the individual sequenced that have potential health importance to relatives, as first-degree biological relatives commonly share 50 percent of their genes.

These issues may also arise after the death of the research participant or patient. Genomic research now commonly involves archiving data and specimens for long periods of time to facilitate continued research. Especially in cancer genomic research, the individual sequenced may die, leaving relatives concerned about their own risk. Yet the main federal law protecting the privacy of health information in the U.S., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), protects the privacy of health information for 50 years after an individual’s death.

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Core strength: The value of institutional support

Rebar strength

By Frances Lawrenz

Earlier this week, Vice President for Research, Brian Herman, led a Campus Conversation to talk about the many ways the OVPR serves as both a catalyst and support system for research at the University of Minnesota.

In the past five years, OVPR has invested $108M in research funding across the university’s colleges and campuses. That’s a little more than $20M a year that goes directly to ensure that our scholars and innovators have the opportunity to advance knowledge in their fields, conduct critical, basic research and explore promising new ideas. These seed funds are also designed to leverage other investments and promote collaborations with business and industry partners.

As both a faculty member in the College of Education and Human Development and Associate VP for Research, I see firsthand the impact this has on expanding, strengthening and enriching our research community. The U of M is nationally known for the breadth and depth of its research programs, for its strong research collaborations and for its integration of research into undergraduate and graduate curricula. While you may know that the pacemaker, the Honeycrisp apple and the AIDS drug Ziagen were all invented by U of M faculty, you may not know that the U is also ranked number one in the nation in both industrial/organizational psychology and developmental psychology and is in the top ten for several disciplines, including history, creative writing, chemical engineering and special education.

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MnDRIVE-funded iGEM team turns mercury into gold

Undergraduate team takes home two honors from international competition

The iGEM – International Genetically Engineered Machines – competition challenges undergraduate students to identify real-world problems and solve them through biological engineering and design. Not only did the University of Minnesota’s team win a Gold Medal award at the 10th annual competition, held in Boston, Mass. Oct. 30 to Nov. 3, they also were awarded Best Environment project. And if that were not enough, they also filed with the university’s Office for Technology Commercialization to begin the patent process for part of their project.

Focusing on the bioremediation of the heavy metal mercury from contaminated water, Team Mntallica pulled students from microbiology, chemistry, engineering and business. The team of undergraduates spent four months creating a bacterial strain capable of detoxifying methyl mercury, along with an improved water filtration device.

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Treating diabetes with beneficial bacteria


University of Minnesota researchers are on a mission to treat diabetes, and they’ve enlisted a few trillion microscopic helpers.

In place of drugs or surgery, a team of researchers is studying how to improve diabetes patients’ insulin sensitivity by introducing trillions of beneficial bacteria into their intestines. Researchers believe this unusual approach, conducted through a fecal microbiota transplant, could improve how the body regulates blood sugar, the central problem in diabetics. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state that aims to solve grand challenges. As a part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the project will bridge multiple fields of research and bring together experts from across the U to work on the same clinical trial.

Patients with diabetes have too much glucose in their blood, which leads to a host of serious health problems, from heart disease to obesity. Dr. Alexander Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the U of M and lead principal investigator on the project, said the right balance of bacteria has the potential to improve the body’s energy metabolism, in part by enhancing insulin function. Insulin drives glucose from blood into cells of the body.

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Startup profile: Reflection Sciences

Child with tablet

Reflection Sciences, launched in July 2014, provides training and tools for assessing executive function skills in early childhood. The company is based on the Minnesota Executive Function Scale, technology developed by Professors Philip Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.


The Minnesota Executive Function Scale is a tablet-based test of a child’s executive function skills — those that aid in controlling one’s attention, thoughts, actions and emotions. The 5-minute game instructs children to sort objects into two boxes according to rules that gradually become more difficult. The test may be administered by teachers, paraprofessionals and researchers in childcare and school settings to measure the effects of training, school curricula and professional development. The test is an inexpensive and easily administered behavioral measure for children ages 2 to 7, the age range in which children can learn and improve their executive function skills.

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Patent roll call, fall 2014

Lightbulb drawing

Patents allow the most promising discoveries of today to become the game-changing innovations of tomorrow. A key milestone in the transition from the lab to the marketplace, patents protect the ownership of university technologies and grant them real-world applications to benefit society.

Congratulations to these University of Minnesota faculty who were recently awarded patents for their discoveries. To learn more about reporting an invention, contact the Office for Technology Commercialization at 612-624-0550 or

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International economics expert to lead global research effort

Holding rice crop

As the world’s population continues to expand, so does the need for a secure, sustainable food supply.

To meet this challenge and adapt to the rapidly changing field of agricultural research, the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Science (CFANS) recently named Philip Pardey, Ph.D., its first director of global research strategy. Pardey earned his Ph.D. at the U of M and has been a professor in the Department of Applied Economics since 2002.

In the newly established CFANS position, Pardey will work internationally to create new opportunities and partnerships between the U and private companies, commodity organizations and non-governmental organizations. He will also bring together researchers from different disciplines and those at partner universities and research agencies to find solutions to complex bio-physical and economic challenges.

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Public health crises fueled by federal funding cuts

Bacteria abstract

Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis. For several years, many of us in the scientific research establishment have been warning of the potential impact on public health should the federal government continue to cut research spending.

The Ebola crisis has brought new clarity to that argument. As the virus burns a path through Western Africa and threatens these shores, the threat of Ebola – and contagions like it – is forcing the recognition that there is a direct correlation between reduced budgets and reduced treatments.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a [Ebola] vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins in an Oct. 12 interview.

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Q & A with Carissa Slotterback

Carissa Slotterback

It is hard to imagine anyone more suited to engagement work than Carissa Slotterback.

Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses in environmental planning, public engagement and sustainability planning. Among other leadership roles across campus, she serves as director of the Humphrey School’s Urban and Regional Planning program as well as director of the Resilient Communities Project, a university-community engagement program focused on sustainability. She is actively involved in interdisciplinary partnerships and projects throughout the U and serves as adjunct faculty or fellow in multiple departments, institutes and centers.

Recently, Slotterback accepted a part time appointment as director of research engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Research. In her new role, Slotterback will help to advance collaborative research throughout the university and facilitate alignment among the U’s multiple strategic initiatives related to research. Among other responsibilities, she will lead planning efforts for the university’s upcoming Convergence Colloquia, a series of events designed to bring researchers together from across the university around specific, interdisciplinary research topics. Slotterback also serves on the Executive Steering Committee for the research strategic plan, Five Years Forward.
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MnDRIVE takes on grand challenges

Made in Minnesota_MnDRIVE

Through a landmark partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state, U researchers and industry partners are working to solve grand challenges across the globe.

MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) aligns university strengths with the state’s key and emerging industries to propel the state’s economy forward, fulfill workforce needs, conserve natural resources and improve human health.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature made a $36 million investment in four university research areas to address issues of societal impact: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving the environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions.
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The wide reach of university research

Twitter word cloud

[Click image to enlarge]

From new technology to better medical practices, university research contributes to nearly every aspect of society.

In June, Inquiry set out to explore just how important research is by posing the question, Why university research? The Twitter community responded with hundreds of examples demonstrating how universities’ scientific and technological advances have addressed global challenges and improved the well-being of society.

The word cloud above pulled the most talked-about research subjects from those tweets to show a small sample of the multitude of subjects that benefit from university research.
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U of M, St. Jude partner to tackle Parkinson’s, depression

Patient care

By Matt DePoint

University of Minnesota researchers and St. Jude Medical are collaborating to treat some of the most challenging and debilitating movement and neuropsychiatric disorders using deep brain stimulation (DBS), a treatment which uses electrical current to directly stimulate parts of the brain. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state that aims to solve grand challenges in areas that align with Minnesota’s industries, including discoveries and treatments for brain conditions.

MnDRIVE’s ongoing partnership with industry leaders will help to achieve its goals for treatments of brain conditions through neuromodulation, a therapeutic intervention that modulates (or changes) the activity of brain circuits to decrease symptoms and improve function.

“We are excited to be collaborating with St. Jude Medical to identify new and better approaches to delivering DBS therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease, including, for example, changes in how the pulsed electrical stimuli delivered to targets deep within the brain are patterned, or organized,” said Kenneth Baker, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota. “We hope not only to improve the direct response of the motor abnormalities to DBS, but also to improve patient care by reducing technological and surgical burdens, such as battery replacements.” Continue reading