July 18, 2008

Robotic system to boost access to genetic samples

Featured Image

Dan Roden, M.D.

Robotic system to boost access to genetic samples

Vanderbilt Medical Center has received a nearly $1 million federal grant for a robotic system that scientists believe will speed the “translation” of genomic research into cutting-edge patient care.

The system, which should be purchased and installed within the next few months, will offer researchers high-quality storage capability and rapid access to thousands of genetic samples used in their studies.

It will provide “a vital first step moving the emerging sciences of genomics and pharmacogenomics from research tools to clinical practice,” said Dan Roden, M.D., director of the Oates Institute for Experimental Therapeutics and assistant vice chancellor for Personalized Medicine.

“This is huge for the (Vanderbilt) program,” added Jeff Balser, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and interim dean of the School of Medicine.

“Our personalized medicine program is really moving us into an extraordinary leadership position in genomic medicine.”

The grant was one of 20 “high-end instrumentation” awards to medical research centers around the country announced this week by the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Last year Vanderbilt received a $46 million Clinical and Translational Research Award (CTSA) from the NCRR to expedite the translation of laboratory discoveries to patients in the community. It was the largest single government grant ever received by the University.

The robotic system will facilitate research supported by the CTSA, as well as the DNA Databank now under development, Roden explained.

Currently, Vanderbilt's DNA Resources Core stores and handles about 140,000 samples used in studies such as the genetics of multiple sclerosis, heart rhythm abnormalities, trauma response and variations in response to AIDS drugs.

More than 40,000 of those samples have been collected during the past year for the DNA Databank, and nearly 1,000 samples are being added every week, Roden said.

The databank stores genetic material extracted from blood samples that otherwise would be discarded, and matches it with clinical data obtained from medical records.

Both the DNA and clinical data are de-identified, meaning they do not include any identifying patient information.

“The databank is still being built,” Roden said. “We are accruing samples and developing methods to identify cases and controls, and a key element is the robot to organize, store and deliver samples. We anticipate rolling out the resource within the next six months.”

When completed, the databank will be a boon to researchers who require large numbers of samples to study the genetics of disease, and it will help them develop tools to deliver modern genetic information to clinicians.

“The likelihood is, this is going to be accessed by lots of investigators,” Roden predicted.