Mapping the Human Genome has been one of the most complex research projects of recent decades. Its findings could open many windows, including cures for illnesses. A group of scientists in San Antonio, Texas has identified a gene on chromosome 15, which apparently regulates inflammation. The finding could have far reaching implications for treating heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and even Alzheimer's. Carol Pearson narrates.
"This is the largest super computing cluster in the world that is completely dedicated to human genome," points out John Blangero, Senior Genetics Scientist, at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research.
He calls it "the computer ranch," a 1500-computer cluster. Running millions of genetic analyses here in the San Antonio, Texas laboratory saved years of work, and helped find what could be one of the key genes responsible for inflammation in the human body. It is the Selenoprotein S, also known by its short name: SEPS1.
Blangero and a colleague created the software to run the genetic program with nearly six terabytes of memory -- the equivalent of computer memory for 1.8 million songs or over 10 years of uninterrupted music.
At the other end of the Foundation, geneticist Joanne Curran generates the basic information from the lab.
Dr. Curran says blood samples from about 40 families with 1400 individuals were brought to this lab, where their DNA was extracted and used for all the gene studies. In all, the lab has 48,000 gene transcripts for each individual person.
"An example was one project that took two hours to analyze on the ranch with 1500 processors. That would have taken us seven years to do with one processor,” she says. “That's just an example of the time that was able to calculate."
Dr. Blangero and his team identified SEPS1, previously unknown. The gene plays a key role in how the body responds to inflammation.
"When we look at this gene and map it on to the human genome, we saw that it’s found in an area that has been associated with things like type-one diabetes, Alzheimers disease, rheumatoid arthritis, so it started to be a trend there,” he said. “These are all things that have some kind of inflammatory component."
Dr. Blangero and his team found that people with diabetes have a lower level of Selenoprotein S and they expect similar results in heart disease patients.
Right now they are testing the gene in relation to parasitic infection. But Dr. Blangero warns that there is a huge difference -- and a vast amount of time -- between identifying a gene and finding out what it does, and using that knowledge to diagnose or treat diseases. Even so, he expects his work will benefit patients some day.
"I would say this pathway will end up being important in a pharmaceutical type of intervention."