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Duke Med creates center for statistics and genetics

Mathematicians and geneticists will combine their expertise in the Center for Statistical Genetics and Genomics, launched recently by the School of Medicine.

Directed by Andrew Allen, professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, the center will focus mainly on the interaction of genetics and genomics with disease. It will provide quantitative scientists with a platform for sharing ideas on how to extract useful information from the vast amounts of genetic data gathered in Duke’s many laboratories. The center represents a continuation of the University’s efforts to promote interdisciplinary work, explained Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“The School of Medicine is interdisciplinary by nature—we’ve long known that we can’t care for patients, or understand how to keep them healthy without collaboration across disciplines,” Andrews wrote in an email. “This center builds on strength we have in statistics, bioinformatics, genetics and genomics, bringing together scientists who have interest and expertise at the intersection of those fields.”

The idea behind the center came from a “critical barrier” facing researchers—biologists are able to generate data much faster than statisticians can analyze them. This situation occurs across many fields of biology, Allen said, making extracting meaningful biological information from data difficult.

Solving this problem is one of the principal goals for the newly created center.

"[We hope to] create an intellectual home for quantitative scientists, so that they can come together and share and hopefully stimulate new ideas and new approaches,” Allen said.

One area of focus will be on how genomic regions that do not encode for proteins can contribute to disease, Andrews explained. Another focus will be integrating genetic information from various fields, from epigenetic studies to genomic code research.

Although the medical school only announced the creation of the Center for Statistical Genetics and Genomics last Wednesday, it has already set the ambitious goal of improving data analysis in order to improve patient outcomes.

Duke is one of the few places that an initiative like this is possible, Allen added, noting that Duke has some of the best quantitative science resources in the nation.

“It is essential that, as an institution, Duke not only be a sophisticated user of these techniques and create an infrastructure for their principled use, but that Duke becomes a leader in this field and push the development of computational and statistical approaches that respond to existing or emerging challenges,” Allen said in a press release.