Thursday, October 18, 2001

DNA expert joins UC genetics program

He'll research complex diseases

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One of the world's top experts in DNA fingerprinting and population genetics will head the University of Cincinnati's newly created Center for Genomic Information.

        UC is expected to announce today that it has appointed Dr. Ranajit Chakraborty to a top professorship in UC's Department of Environmental Health.

        Dr. Chakraborty is among the handful of experts who wrote scientific standards now used by labs nationwide to analyze DNA evidence from crime scenes. More recently, he supplied computer algorithms that the New York medical examiner's office is using to analyze DNA and help identify body parts uncovered at the World Trade Center.

[photo] The appointment of Dr. Ranajit Chakraborty to head UC's Center for Genomic Information is expected to be announced today.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        In Cincinnati, Dr. Chakraborty will lead a team of six to 10 faculty researchers plus another 20 staff members to trace complex genetic links to diseases and to advance the technology of genetic research.

        He was recruited this summer from the University of Texas School of Public Health Human Genetics Center in Houston. UC officials say this is a major step forward in their plans to double medical research by 2006.

        “This is one of the most important recruitments we've done in the past five years or more,” said Dr. John Hutton, dean of the UC College of Medicine. “This is more than the recruitment of a single person. This is an entire program.”

        Dr. Chakraborty, 55, is a native of India who earned a doctorate in biostatistics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta in 1971. He joined the University of Texas in 1973 and became a renowned expert in population genetics, which is the study of genetic markers in ethnic groups that make people likely to develop disease.

        Dr. Chakraborty expects to play administrative and scientific roles. On the business side, he will help recruit other scientists to UC and organize labs involved in gene analysis.

        On the scientific side, he will be involved in several research projects, including a nationwide study of how chemotherapy and radiation treatments affect the reproductive ability of childhood cancer survivors.

        Another planned project will study up to 4,000 residents of several islands in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia, where generations of people who only rarely interact with the mainland appear to have unusually high rates of asthma, hypertension and gout.

        “(Scientists) already have identified many diseases that are caused by a single gene mutation,” Dr. Chakraborty said. “What we are left with are complex diseases that involve many genes acting in combination with each other.”

        Cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia are examples of single-gene diseases. Complex diseases include diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.

        Dr. Chakraborty brings with him about $2 million in active research grants from Texas. His salary, $190,000 a year, primarily will come from a $3 million endowment that supports the Robert A. Kehoe Chair in Environmental Health. Dr. Chakraborty is the first professor to be named to the Kehoe post since it was created in 1995.

        Dr. Chakraborty could have received higher pay to stay in Texas or to return to India, added Dr. Hutton.

        Dr. Chakraborty said he decided to come to Cincinnati, after nearly 28 years in Houston, because here he can play a leading role in UC's fast-evolving genetics program.

        While many achievements have been made in genetic science, the biggest advancements are yet to come, he said. The recent near-completion of the Human Genome Project provides the first complete map of the basic blueprint of the human body.

        Even so, it will take years for scientists, using advanced robotics and computer technology, to use that blueprint as a disease-fighting tool, Dr. Chakraborty said.

        For example, people may benefit someday from customized medicine, in which doctors use a patient's genetic information to determine exactly which medications are most likely to help and which would be most likely to cause dangerous side effects.

        “I think that customized medicine is not too far in the future,” Dr. Chakraborty said.

        But getting there will require developing better ways to compact, store and use massive amounts of data, so that genetic information can be used in everyday medical practice. With the addition of Dr. Chakraborty, UC hopes to be among the leaders in developing such technology.


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