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Editorial: What genomics needs

Last week, the University announced that it had found what it has sought for two years--a director of the Institute for Genome Science and Policy.

Huntington Willard, the new director, seems to be the perfect candidate. A Harvard and Yale-trained scientist, he has experience in both the academic realm and in the real world. Likewise, he not only possesses the scientific skills to understand the cutting edge of genomics, but possesses an appreciation for how the genomics revolution has and will continue to transform society through ethics, law, religion and policy.

That interdisciplinary approach--questioning the ethical dilemmas of new genomic therapies, linking Medical Center findings to new, exciting technologies and interpreting the vast body of data through the emerging subfield of bioinformatics--is what Duke is hoping will make its genomics institute special.

Willard should waste no time in filling the infrastructural skeleton that Provost Peter Lange and Dr. Sandy Williams, dean of the School of Medicine, have established. Announced in fall 2000, the $200 genomics initiative is one of the University strategic plan's top goals. As former medical school dean Edward Holmes left only nine months into his tenure to spend more time with his family on the West Coast, the search for a medical school dean superseded any administrative progress for the genomics initiative. Even when Williams was selected in 2001, the search for a director met roadblocks--such as the decision by Dr. Lewis "Rusty" Williams not to take the position last fall.

All the while, medical researchers have continued to work on genetic breakthroughs--e.g., Margaret Pericak-Vance's award-winning work on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Pericak-Vance leads the Center for Human Genetics, one of five centers that IGSP will coordinate. Last summer, Robert Cook-Deegan was hired to head the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy. A bioinformatics doctorate has also been established over the last year, starting the process of translating research into applications for graduate and even undergraduate students.

Three other directorships--for the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, the Center for Human Disease Models and the Center for Genome Technology--remain to be filled. Hopefully, with Willard on board, those hires will be made and the initiative can move forward, even as other schools push onward in what may perhaps the most dynamic field of study in the world today.

The next six months will be very important--Williard's vision for the genomics initiative will set the pace and the progress that Duke will make over the next 10 years in this rapidly evolving, cutting-edge field.

As the administrative pieces fall into place and the buildings for the initiative complete construction, Willard will have to work hard to bring those new resources alongside the Medical Center's current research to transform Duke's efforts in genetics into a force with which to be reckoned with.

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