The Common Thread:
What genetics tells us about ancestry, health, and personal identity
A Congressional briefing
Organized by the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd), Harvard Medical School
In cooperation with the offices of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman Bill Foster
May 15, 2018
We will be holding two iterations of this program:
12:00-1:30pm, Congressional Visitors Center, Room HVC 201 (Lunch provided)
3:00-4:30pm, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room G-50 (Refreshments provided)
Advances in genetics are producing new tools for investigating commonalities and differences across human populations, with implications for precision medicine, racial identity, and beyond. They are improving our understanding of how a person’s DNA, together with the environment, contributes to health, disease susceptibility, and response to medications. In addition, DNA ancestry testing is providing people with a new lens for examining family history. In this briefing, a panel of expert scientists will explore these topics as they relate to ethnicity and race. Speakers will also address misconceptions of genetic determinism, the profound impact of the environment (e.g., diet, living conditions, and life experiences), the history of eugenics, and the role of public awareness and dialog in the coming era of personal genetics and gene editing.
Eimear Kenny, PhD – Assistant Professor of Genetics and Genome Science, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Dr. Eimear Kenny is Assistant Professor of Genetics and Genome Science, and is a member of the Charles Bronfman Institute of Personalized Medicine, the Institute of Genomics and Multiscale Biology and the Center for Statistical Genetics, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The overall goal of Dr. Kenny’s lab is to realize the full potential of genomics to infer human history and evolution and to inform better models for clinical medicine. Her work has been published in leading research journals including Nature, Science, Cell,Nature Genetics, PNAS and PLoS Genetics. Her current focus is in developing statistical and genomic resources to enable functional genetic variant discovery in global populations. Dr. Kenny’s recent work (with co-authors) describing a novel variant that causes blond hair in the Solomon Islands, Melanesia, published in the journal Science, was featured in the New York Times. She completed a BSc in Biochemistry in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, a MSc in Bioinformatics at the University of Leeds, England, and a PhD in Statistical Genetics at Rockefeller University, New York. Dr. Kenny joined the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in November 2012.
Charles Rotimi, PhD – Senior Investigator of the Metabolic, Cardiovascular and Inflammatory Disease Genomics Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health
Dr. Charles Rotimi, a genetic epidemiologist and a biochemist, is the Director of the NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health (CRGGH), which has the mission of advancing research into the role of culture, lifestyle, genetics, and genomics in disease etiology, health disparities, and variable drug response. His team published the first genome-wide scan for hypertension and blood pressure in African Americans and for type 2 diabetes in West Africans, and his lab contributes to the global understanding of human genetic variation by actively participating in the development of international genomic resources including the HapMap, the 1000 Genome, and the African Genome Variation Projects. He is on the Executive and Scientific Committee for the International Federation of Human Genetics Societies, and he is the founding and current president of the African Society of Human Genetics (AfSHG). Recently, he successfully led the establishment of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) initiative. With a $50 million commitment from the NIH and Wellcome Trust, H3Africa will create and support a network of labs that will conduct leading-edge research into the genetic and environmental determinants of diseases in Africans.
Dr. Rotimi received his undergraduate education in biochemistry from the University of Benin in Nigeria before immigrating to the United States for further studies. He started his education in the United States at the University of Mississippi, where he obtained a master’s degree in health care administration. He obtained a second master’s degree and a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. Prior to coming to the NIH, Dr. Rotimi was the director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University.
Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD – Chief Scientific Officer & James and Patricia Poitras Chair in Psychiatry, McLean Hospital; Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Dr. Kerry J. Ressler is the James and Patricia Poitras Chair in Psychiatry, and Chief of the Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders at McLean Hospital, affiliate of the Harvard Medical School. Prior to moving to McLean in 2015, he spent 18 years at Emory University and Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he led the Grady Trauma Project, a study focused on understanding the Psychology, Biology, and Trauma-Related factors contributing to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Substance Abuse and Violence in over 10,000 participants from urban Atlanta. He was also the 2017 President of the US Society for Biological Psychiatry. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology from MIT, and his MD/PhD from Harvard Medical School. In 1992 at Harvard, he was the first student of Dr. Linda Buck (Nobel Prize, 2004), helping to identify the molecular organization of the olfactory receptor system. Dr. Ressler is a previous Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a current member of the National Academy of Medicine. His work focuses on translational research bridging molecular neurobiology in animal models with human genetic and epigenetic research on emotion, particularly fear and anxiety disorders. He has published over 300 manuscripts ranging from genetic basic molecular mechanisms of fear processing to understanding how emotion is encoded in the brain across animal models and human patients.
George Church, PhD – Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School and MIT; Director of an NIH Center of Excellence in Genomic Science; Director of the Personal Genome Project
Dr. George M. Church is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, a founding member of the Wyss Institute, and director of PersonalGenomes.org, the world’s only open-access information on human genomic, environmental, and trait data. Church is known for pioneering the fields of personal genomics and synthetic biology. He developed the first methods for the first genome sequence & dramatic cost reductions since then (down from $3 billion to $600), contributing to nearly all “next generation sequencing” methods and companies. His team invented CRISPR for human stem cell genome editing and other synthetic biology technologies and applications – including new ways to create organs for transplantation, gene therapies for aging reversal, and gene drives to eliminate Lyme Disease and Malaria. Church is director of IARPA & NIH BRAIN Projects and NIH Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. He has coauthored 450 papers, 105 patents, and one book, Regenesis. His honors include Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science, the Time 100, and election to the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.
Welcome & opening remarks (Fabienne Mondesir, Director of Community Engagement, pgEd)
The history of human populations: a genetics perspective (Eimear Kenny)
How health is shaped by genes, ancestry, and environment (Charles Rotimi)
Biology of behavior: Genetics and beyond (Kerry Ressler)
Learning from the past: Towards an era of genetics with benefits for all (George Church)
Roundtable discussion with panelists
Ample time will be allotted for discussion, and speakers will be available for informal conversations to follow.
Learn more about our series of briefings
These briefings will be the sixth in a series from the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd.org). The mission of pgEd is to increase awareness and conversation about the benefits and ethical, legal, and social implications of personal genetics. We aim to be inclusive of all voices in these discussions, regardless of socioeconomic or educational background, cultural or religious affiliation, and ethnic or personal identity.
For further information, contact Marnie Gelbart at (617) 432-1797 or mgelbart@pgEd.med.harvard.edu.