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Van Andel Institute, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to lead genome center under $140M NIH initiative

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (May 11, 2023)Van Andel Institute’s Hui Shen, Ph.D., and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis’s Ting Wang, Ph.D., will co-lead a collaborative project supported by the Somatic Mosaicism across Human Tissues (SMaHT) Network, a new $140 million National Institutes of Health-led effort to better understand the genetic differences between individual cells and tissues in the body.

Somatic mosaicism occurs when DNA, which houses the genetic code, accumulates slight changes throughout a person’s lifetime.

Some variations may impede cells’ ability to function. Somatic mosaicism is a key contributor to cancer, but its role in other diseases is not well understood.

SMaHT aims to identify and catalog these somatic variants in different individuals and enable new research into development, aging and a host of disorders.

Together, Van Andel Institute and Washington University will serve as one of five SMaHT-supported Genome Characterization Centers, which will conduct leading-edge genomic analysis for the network.

Wang will serve as the project’s director; Shen will serve as co-director. The project is supported by a $15 million grant from the NIH Common Fund as part of SMaHT.

“We all carry such genetic mosaicism in our bodies, but the extent and implications of these variations remain unclear. Establishing an accurate picture of its role in the body is a massive undertaking that only can be achieved through collaboration,” Shen said. “I am thrilled to partner with Dr. Wang and the SMaHT Network, and look forward to contributing to a fuller understanding of this important and yet very much uncharted aspect of our cells.”

In total, the NIH Common Fund issued 22 awards to establish the SMaHT Network. The project is akin to other large-scale NIH-supported projects such as the Human Genome Project, a 13-year endeavor that resulted in the first full blueprint of the human genome.

Shen is an internationally recognized expert in bioinformatics and epigenetics, the study of changes to DNA that do not alter the DNA sequence itself. She was a long-time member of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), an NIH-led collaborative effort to molecularly map 33 different cancer types. TCGA ended in 2018 with the publication of its Pan-Cancer Atlas, a comprehensive resource for scientists seeking to understand how and why cancer develops. Shen is a current member of the National Cancer Institute’s Genome Data Analysis Network (GDAN), a successor to TCGA that develops new tools to assist in the analysis of data.

Research reported in this publication is supported by the NIH Common Fund under award no. UM1DA058219. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

ABOUT VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE

Van Andel Institute (VAI) is committed to improving the health and enhancing the lives of current and future generations through cutting edge biomedical research and innovative educational offerings. Established in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1996 by the Van Andel family, VAI is now home to more than 500 scientists, educators and support staff, who work with a growing number of national and international collaborators to foster discovery. The Institute’s scientists study the origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and translate their findings into breakthrough prevention and treatment strategies. Our educators develop inquiry-based approaches for K-12 education to help students and teachers prepare the next generation of problem-solvers, while our Graduate School offers a rigorous, research-intensive Ph.D. program in molecular and cellular biology.