A Global Genomics Gathering
Over the course of four days, the fourth floor of the Hilton Americas in downtown Houston served as a temporary hub for discussions of human genetics, genomics and all things Mendelian. The Houston medical community was proud to welcome the Human Genome Meeting (HGM), an annual scientific conference organized by the Human Genome Organisation (HUGO). The 2016 meeting marked the first time in decades that HUGO was held in the United States.
Offering a unique interplay of plenary lectures, symposia, workshops, poster presentations and laboratory tours, the 2016 HGM brought together genetic and genomic researchers from all corners of the globe. A unifying theme of translation wove potentially disparate threads together, tackling genomics-driven approaches in the diagnosis, treatment and management of cancer and genetic disease—all while inching toward future strategies and technologies for implementation.
“What we wanted to do with this meeting was to focus it down a proper path a bit more than previous meetings and bring experts from all across the world to bear on this issue of translational genomics,” said Andrew Futreal, Ph.D., professor in the department of genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, as well as the chair of HUGO’s local organizing committee. “We wanted to think about it from the aspect of risk all the way through treatment and even novel approaches to understanding genomes. That way, we’ll be able to interpret the coming wave of information that’s being derived from more and more ubiquitous use of genome sequences, allowing for a greater understanding of human health and disease.”
Striving to balance contemporary issues in cancer and genetics with technology, ethics and policy, the conference featured over 40 distinguished speakers from throughout the Texas Medical Center, across the country and beyond—covering topics such as “Interpreting Cancer Genomes,” “Genome Editing” and “Mendelian Genetics”—in addition to 56 oral presentations from submitted abstracts and 60 poster presentations.
The roller-coaster history of genetic medicine is reflected in the evolution of the meeting itself. In 1991, HUGO held its first meeting with a singular purpose in mind: to collaborate on the ambitious goal of mapping the human genome.
“Initially, the goal of HUGO was to coordinate scientific efforts for the mapping and sequencing of the human genome,” said Stylianos E. Antonarakis, M.D., president of HUGO, as well as professor and chairman of genetic medicine at the University of Geneva Medical School. “I remember the meetings that we held at that time were mostly working meetings; there were very few talks. You would come with your lab books that showcased the results of your mapping experiments, and your fellow scientists would do the same. Then we’d put them together and compare them. If they were the same that was great—if not, we’d try to resolve any differences.”
Those targeted ambitions would define the HGM for more than 10 years—when the titular acronym actually stood for “Human Genome Mapping.” Over the years, and spurred by the completion of the Human Genome Project, HUGO was forced to leave the meeting’s origins behind.
“HUGO didn’t have anything left to coordinate afterwards,” Antonarakis said. “That led the organization to concentrate on ethics statements, policy issues and how to best advise different parts of the world on the importance of the genomic variation in phenotypes on disorders and traits. Gradually, the importance of HUGO went from North America and Europe to the parts of the world that were not that developed in genetic services, thinking and research. And that’s where we are today.”
This year’s conference kicked off with a plenary session that showcased both the storied history and daring ambitions of genomic medicine. Entitled, “At 30, Genomics Comes of Age,” and led by Maynard V. Olson, Ph.D., professor of genome sciences and medicine at the University of Washington, the talk called for a serious reevaluation of priorities and processes now that genome sequencing has established a firm foothold in medicine.
“Now is decidedly the time to really think boldly about the policies that we’ll need over the next decades to optimize genomics’ potential to advance progress in medicine,” Olson said. “This is going to be an immensely greater challenge than the one that the Human Genome Project represented. Obviously, it’s greater in scale, but the real key is that we get ahead of the curve of scientific progress.”
The 2016 HGM featured a “Meet the Professors” series, during which attendees—from students and postdocs to young faculty members—had an opportunity to sit down with the speakers themselves. The four-day conference also included a tour of Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Genome Sequencing Center. For Antonarakis, the opportunity for a younger generation of researchers to visit real-life sequencing center—rather than experience a series of slides on a screen—is a testament to the value HGM provides its attendees.
“We’d like HUGO to continue to have more focused meetings in the future,” Antonarakis said. “Next year’s meeting will be on how genomics informs treatment. In genetics, diagnosis runs much faster than treatment, so we want to emphasize treating disorders with different approaches, from drugs to interventions and changes in lifestyle. We’d like to learn from the experts and each other while we explore these possibilities.”