The Clemson Center for Human Genetics officially opened for business Tuesday evening, celebrating with an enthusiastic gathering of supporters who met with scientists and toured the state-of-the-art facility.
Piloted by a cadre of researchers equipped with world-class laboratories and technologically advanced instrumentation, Clemson’s Center for Human Genetics has successfully landed on the global stage – both in talent and scope. The center, which is part of Clemson’s College of Science, is dedicated to advancing knowledge of the fundamental principles by which genetic and environmental factors determine and predict healthy traits and susceptibility to disease.
The center is housed in Self Regional Hall with eight laboratories and several classrooms, conference rooms and offices for faculty and graduate students. The 17,000-square-foot building is located on the campus of the Greenwood Genetic Center. During Tuesday’s event, the labs and hallways were jammed with guests.
Trudy Mackay, director of the Center for Human Genetics, is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the genetics of complex traits. Mackay, the Self Family Endowed Chair in Human Genetics and Professor of Genetics and Biochemistry, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of London and the National Academy of Sciences.
Mackay is joined at Clemson by Robert Anholt, Provost’s Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Biochemistry and director of Faculty Excellence Initiatives in the College of Science. Anholt is also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“This is an exciting time in the field of human genetics and its connection to health and well-being,” said Mackay, who has won numerous international awards, including the prestigious Wolf Prize, published more than 200 papers and trained graduate and postdoctoral students who have gone on to represent the next generation of geneticists. “We now know that all of us are 99.9 percent identical in our DNA, but that 10th of a percent difference translates to 3 million small genetic differences between any two of us. The challenge now is to understand how these molecular differences in DNA affect our susceptibility to diseases like cancer and heart ailments.”
Tuesday’s event was the culmination of 13 years of planning, collaboration and diligence. The naming of Self Regional Hall recognized the ongoing support from Self Regional Healthcare, which has contributed $5.6 million to the facility. In addition, the $4 million endowed chair held by Mackay was funded equally by the Self Family Foundation and the state of South Carolina.
“We are confident that our investment in the Self Family Endowed Chair for Human Genetics will pay huge dividends in furthering research to prevent, treat and cure genetic disorders,” said Frank Wideman, president of the Self Family Foundation. “We believe the synergy brought about by the intellectual capital of the Clemson Center for Human Genetics and that of the Greenwood Genetic Center has unlimited potential.”
Clemson University President James P. Clements praised the Self family, the city of Greenwood, Greenwood County, the Greenwood Commissioners of Public Works and the Greenwood Partnership Alliance for their generous support.
“Our partnership with the Greenwood Genetic Center, along with the amazing support we are receiving from Self Regional Healthcare and the Self Family Foundation, will allow our faculty researchers to translate their findings into tangible treatment options more quickly and efficiently,” Clements said. “The work being done here has the potential to make a huge difference in improving lives, which is at the core of Clemson’s mission as a land-grant university.”
Mackay and Anholt came to Clemson from North Carolina State, where they had conducted research for a combined 55 years. Most of Mackay’s new Clemson team also hail from N.C. State, including staff scientists Richard Lyman and Roberta Lyman, postdoctoral research associate Chad Highfill and doctoral students Brandon Baker and Sneha Mokashi. Rebecca Jones, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in genetics from Clemson in May 2018, will be joining the team as a graduate student. Karl Kelly will continue to provide support as director of operations.
The Center for Human Genetics will work in partnership with the Greenwood Genetic Center, a nonprofit institute that focuses on clinical genetic services, diagnostic laboratory testing, educational programs and research. Mackay and her team will interact regularly with Greenwood Genetic Center personnel.
“This is an outstanding example of how the power of partnership can collectively harness talent to improve lives,” said Cynthia Y. Young, founding dean of Clemson’s College of Science. “Together, we have put a stake in the ground to develop a globally recognized center of excellence around human genetics anchored by some of the world’s most talented scientists.”
Dr. Steve Skinner, director of the Greenwood Genetic Center, said that the impact of the collaboration between the two centers will be transformative for genomics medicine.
“With the research expertise of Drs. Mackay and Anholt, and GGC’s illustrious history of providing clinical care and human genetics advancements, our combined efforts will advance the understanding of human diseases and behaviors, as well as guide us toward potential treatments to improve the quality of life for those impacted by neurodevelopmental and other genetic disorders.”
Skinner cited the recent joint acquisition of a NovaSeq 6000 DNA sequencer from Illumina as proof of the potency of the partnership.
“The NovaSeq is the most powerful sequencer available, and we have the only one in South Carolina,” Skinner said. “This instrument not only increases our DNA sequencing capacity and ability to diagnose complex patients though whole genome sequencing, it also provides genomic data to advance Clemson’s studies and GGC’s zebrafish models with the ultimate goal of improving patient health and quality of life.”
The main goals of the Center for Human Genetics include:
Leverage comprehensive genetic approaches and comparative genomics to explain the fundamental principles of human complex traits, including disease risk.
Promote precision medicine.
Develop local, regional, national and international collaborations to advance human genetics.
Educate the next generation of human geneticists.
Promote public understanding of human genetics through community outreach.
Much of the above will be accomplished by studying the inner workings of an insect that is smaller than a grain of rice. The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has turned out to be a remarkably powerful gene discovery system for large-scale, population-based genetic studies. About 70 percent of fly genes have human counterparts, which enable the construction of contextual genetic networks. Using the fly as their catalyst, Mackay and her team will seek new breakthroughs in the treatment of addiction, glaucoma, alcohol and fatty liver disease, oxidative stress, heavy metal toxicity, aging and neurological disorders.
“I am proud to lead Clemson’s Center for Human Genetics in Greenwood,” Mackay said. “We will have a strong connection to the main campus at Clemson to strengthen our research and academic core. Together with our partners, we will accomplish a great deal in the coming years.”