By Terry Magnuson, April 11, 2019

In collaboration with research deans from each of UNC’s schools and three divisions within the College of Arts & Sciences, as well as directors of UNC’s centers and institutes, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research has identified six strategic research priorities for the university.

Solving major challenges requires the partnership of multidisciplinary experts, trainees, students, and staff working as cohesive teams, aided by supportive frameworks and infrastructure. This support is made possible by collaboration around our strategic priorities.

One of these priorities is Precision Health and Society. Precision health is the customization of health care tailored to individuals. It considers population characteristics and individual differences such as genetic, social, environmental, and lifestyle factors to provide more specific prevention tactics, treatment options, and clinical care to improve health outcomes. This effort involves expertise from every unit on the UNC campus. In addition, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center has created the North Carolina Precision Health Collaborative, which involves universities, industry, insurance entities, nonprofits, and state government to develop North Carolina’s full potential in the precision health sector.

A parallel effort on the national level is the NIH’s All of Us Research Program, which will gather data from 1 million or more people to accelerate research in precision health. The program is just one of many national genomics efforts that are taking off around the world with the goal of providing insights into the understanding of the human genome.

The potential and promise of this work is tremendous, but there are significant complications. A timely issue of the journal Cell addresses the complex topics of the human genome and precision health, with several articles and opinion pieces about the societal challenges brought by individual genomic information.

The trials facing the researchers today include: understanding what’s really in a genome, the importance of genomic diversity, the need for computational and data science to go from data to practical insights, the ethical, legal, and social implications of knowing individual genomic information, and how to enable physicians to use this information for patient care.

And what about the limitations of privacy surrounding the participation by the public? Individuals now have the chance to participate both as subjects and stakeholders. But we have seen examples of the loss of privacy for individuals using commercial ancestry registries — even including identifying related individuals as possible suspects in criminal acts. Do public registries mean the loss of genetic privacy?

Our research partners from across campus chose Precision Health and Society as one of our strategic priorities because we have the expertise not only to explore and capitalize on the unique benefits of precision health study, but also to address the societal and environmental questions resulting from the data we gather. The age of empowering and involving individuals with the use of their own genetic information is here, and we are well-equipped to answer the challenges inherent in this field.

Permalink: Potential and Promise of Precision Health

By Terry Magnuson, March 14, 2019

On January 11, Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorology professor from the University of Oklahoma, assumed directorship of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). His appointment was welcomed by many scientific societies. In February, Droegemeier gave his first public address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As summarized in Science, his address touched on several aspects of interest to the scientific community.

He emphasized his perception that U.S. scientific preeminence is not because of “increased federal funding, but stronger collaborations among government, industry, academia, and private foundations.” He also stated that the federal government no longer drives the U.S. innovation engine, suggesting that non-public investments are now playing a more significant role in science funding than they have in the past.

President Trump’s current proposed budget suggests flat or reduced spending for many science agencies. As a result, Droegemeier calls for combining thoughtful and effective allocation of federal resources with new models of funding such as a network of industry-funded institutes on university campuses that are staffed by academic, corporate, and government scientists.

Research at UNC has already been adopting this model to great success. Qura Therapeutics, for example, formed in partnership between GSK (now ViiV Health Care) and UNC to focus on finding a cure for HIV. The recent creation of Pinnacle Hill, a collaboration between UNC and Deerfield Management to fund therapeutic breakthroughs in UNC research laboratories, is another. These are very exciting partnerships that reflect Droegemeier’s vision.

These partnerships would not have occurred without sustainable federal funding for fundamental or basic research. Last week, I spent a day on Capitol Hill with Nancy Fisher, professor of microbiology and immunology, and Kelly Dockham, director of the Office of Federal Affairs, to meet with staff members of the North Carolina delegation to advocate for more federal funding for research in university laboratories.

It is this funding that allows for the development of creative discoveries, which then attracts funding from the private sector. The latter does not happen without the former. We must continue to advocate for systematic increases in federal funding to translate basic discoveries into practical applications that benefit healthy populations.

Permalink: Advocating for Federal Funding of Research

By Terry Magnuson, February 12, 2019

Gaining access to the latest research through Open Access publishing has become a hot topic among scholars and publishers. Open Access publishing makes research materials available to the public, free of charge — a critical component for the advancement of research in every discipline.

Open Access isn’t always accessible, though. The movement to Open Access publishing has influenced some journals to offer complete Open Access — but with significant publication costs. Others use a hybrid model, which gives immediate Open Access to authors who pay higher fees. Oftentimes, researchers review manuscripts free of charge and then pay page fees when publishing, and libraries pay subscription fees for researchers to gain access to published material. It is a business model built on the backs of researchers.

UNC is a leading institution in providing Open Access publishing through the Carolina Digital Repository (CDR), hosted by University Libraries. The CDR collects scholarly works, datasets, research materials, records, and audiovisual materials produced by the Carolina community and shares them with the public.

In September 2018, an international consortium of research funders called cOALition S introduced Plan S, which requires that materials from researchers receiving funding from any member of the consortium be made immediately Open Access. All publishers charging subscriptions — including hybrid journals — would be affected. Furthermore, publication costs would be capped so that publishers could not pass on increased fees to researchers.

Even though this sounds like a good plan, science writer Jeffrey Brainard recently wrote an opinion piece in Science outlining some of its unintended consequences. While Open Access publishing is widely supported and should be a part of our future, Brainard raises important questions. Will the fee cap be too low to cover the average cost per paper? What will happen to nonprofit scientific societies that publish their own journals at low subscription costs? Such organizations depend on this income to provide community services such as advocacy, early career mentoring, and teaching materials.

As the research world moves toward Open Access publishing, Brainard argues that business models will vary depending on the journal. Peer reviewing and peer-edited journals are an important part of the research landscape, particularly with a focus on rigor and reproducibility. I encourage all UNC researchers to pay attention to this critical issue, to work with the CDR to make research materials Open Access when possible, and to express your thoughts to societies, federal agencies, and to the consortium organizing Plan S.

Permalink: A Closer Look at Open Access

By Terry Magnuson, January 28, 2019

In December, Science announced its 2018 Breakthrough of the Year, which highlighted a trio of innovations in tracking embryo development cell by cell. These breakthroughs are the result of technical advances that allow scientists to isolate large numbers of cells from a living organism, sequence the genetic material inside each cell, and track the movement of the cells over time to understand better how they work together to create complex organs — creating great potential for new discoveries in basic research and medicine.

This breakthrough work follows the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning research of John Sulston, who studied the developing roundworm. By painstakingly tracking each cell during subsequent cell divisions, Sulston was able to determine the complete cell lineage of the embryo. One of my own papers examined the cell lineage of a mouse embryo by focusing on a gene that, when mutated, disrupted its development.

Just last year, scientists revolutionized single-cell analysis and tracking using advanced technology. Through research studies using cells from organisms such as flatworms, fish, and frogs, investigators discovered new cell types and developmental trajectories previously unknown. We now know, for example, that some damaged tissue reverts to an embryonic or undifferentiated state, allowing the cells to build a new limb from scratch. Engineered markers make it possible to track cells and understand their molecular states as they develop into a complex organism.

Although these techniques cannot be used in developing human embryos, similar approaches have led to an international consortium that is defining the Human Cell Atlas — an effort to identify every human cell type, where it is located in the body, and how cells integrate to form organs.

I am proud of the innovative work of my colleagues here at UNC who are contributing to the understanding of cell movement and development. Amy Gladfelter, for example, studies how cells organize in time and space. Bob Goldstein examines how cells move to specific positions during development. Amy Maddox combines high-resolution microscopy with other techniques to study cell shape changes. Paul Maddox combines quantitative image analysis with other high-resolution techniques to study cell division. Jim Bear uses live-cell microscopy to track migration of cells to understand development of tissue architecture. Sreeja Asokan has developed microfluidic assays to study cell migration in response to external cues.

Because of the technological advances and the computational ability to integrate data, many exciting breakthroughs in both normal and abnormal cell development are leading to a greater understanding of disease. I am delighted to witness this revolution and eager to see the discoveries yet to be made.

Permalink: Breakthroughs in Cell Development