USF celebrates opening of Heart Institute Genomics Laboratory

The new laboratory, focusing on genomic science to find new diagnostics and therapies for cardiovascular disease, was built with the support of Hillsborough County

Framed patents lining a wall in the newly opened USF Heart Institute Genomics Laboratory contain scientific language like polymorphisms and adrenergic receptors.  But application of the entrepreneurial research described in those patents may lead to new therapies based on an individual’s DNA or predict which patients are most likely to benefit from existing drugs.

“It’s ground breaking,” Stephen Klasko, MD, CEO for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, said of the research behind the patents held by Stephen Liggett, MD, who was recruited last year to lead the university’s genomics and personalized medicine research and who will direct the new laboratory.

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L to R: Dr. Stephen Klasko, CEO of USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine, and Dr. Stephen Liggett, vice dean for research at MCOM, with Hillsborough County Commissioners Ken Hagan (chair), Sandra Murman and Mark Sharpe.

Dr. Klasko welcomed university and community leaders May 14  to the grand opening of the 7,550-square-foot laboratory, built on the fifth floor of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute. The celebration was an opportunity to thank Hillsborough County Commissioners for their forward-thinking support of the transformative space focusing on genomic science within the Heart Institute, and showcase how USF Health is transforming health care.

“A lot of people talk about molecular genomics and regenerative therapies, and a lot of people are doing great clinical research,” Dr. Klasko said. “We’re going to be the first place to bring together all that technology and research to really get something done on behalf of patients.”

Shelled-in space at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute was built out to house the Genomics Laboratory, so that basic science research could begin before construction of the freestanding USF Heart Institute. The cost of the laboratory’s construction, equipment and initial recruitment of researchers, was $2 million, half of which was funded by an economic development grant from Hillsborough County.

Last year, the state and country awarded USF a total of $8.9 million to move forward in creating a Heart Institute that will pursue innovative research to find new diagnostics and therapies for cardiovascular disease – a leading cause of hospitalizations, deaths and lost productivity in Florida and nationwide. The Legislature approved a second appropriation of funding for the Institute this session, and a final appropriation is expected next session.

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Dr. Klasko welcomed university and community leaders attending the grand opening of the USF Heart Institute Genomics Laboratory.

The Institute’s proposed location will be in the center of the university’s health campus, which includes Moffitt Cancer Center, the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, and the Morsani College of Medicine and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. The research facility will also be near Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute, which is collaborating with USF Health on the local arm of a national clinical trial testing a new gene treatment for heart failure.

This proximity of these leading medical institutions will help the Heart Institute create meaningful research collaborations and leverage vital resources “that will make the real difference,” said Leslie Miller, MD, director of the USF Heart Institute.

“It’s an exciting time,” Dr. Miller said. “New drugs and biologic therapies we’ll discover here hopefully will have an immediate impact and translate into a reduction in cardiovascular mortality.”

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The 15 patents lining one wall of the Genomics Laboratory were issued to Dr. Liggett and colleagues for genomic research discoveries applicable to diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Liggett, vice dean for research at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said the genomics laboratory is the “seed” for the larger Heart Institute to come.

The laboratory is equipped with state-of-the-art machines for sequencing DNA.  That and other advanced technology will allow USF researchers to study the differences in DNA among individuals to help unravel how diseases emerge and to discover targeted therapies tailored to the patient’s genetic makeup.

The scientists who work in the lab will address such questions as: Do certain genetic variants predispose an individual to certain diseases?  Do they modify the course, or severity, of particular diseases? Can they predict an individual’s response to treatment?

“This whole concept of one drug fits all, which we know doesn’t really work, is going to stop right here,” Dr. Liggett said.

While the new genomics lab will initially focus on heart research, it will eventually branch out to other diseases. “In fact,” Liggett said, “one cannot study heart disease without also studying atherosclerosis, obesity, diabetes and metabolism, to name a few. So, we will be comprehensive.”

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Dr. Miller outlines plans for the freestanding USF Heart Institute, which will be constructed in the center of the USF Health campus near other leading health institutions.

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Dr. Liggett, who explained what scientists will do in the new genomics laboratory, holds up a test tube, which he said contains his DNA. “It’s labeled sample #1, because, back in 1991, I was the first person whose DNA I ever studied.”

In March 2012, Dr. Liggett and Dr. Miller joined Dr. Klasko in appearing before the Hillsborough County Commission to lay out the visionary plan for creating the USF Heart Institute.

“Given the importance of the University of South Florida as a key economic engine and its standing as a research leader among universities, it was an easy decision for the Board to support this lab,” said Ken Hagan, chair of the Board of County Commissioners. “When innovative thinking is matched with widespread community support, dramatic change can occur.  It will mean healthier lives for all and a healthier economic environment for Tampa Bay.”

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Hal Mullis, vice chair of the USF System Board of Trustees, leads the board’s Health work group.

Hagan credited his fellow commissioner Mark Sharpe with championing the proposal for the institute.

“The transformation of health requires radical thinking and brave disruptors who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo,” Sharpe said. “Health care and heart care is going to be changing right here in Tampa Bay, and we’re thrilled to be part of it.”

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Ken Hagan, chair of the Hillsborough County Commission, said the county was proud to partner with a leading research university and the state to pursue the creation of the USF Heart Institute.

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Commissioner Mark Sharpe said transforming health and heart care requires disruptive innovation, and Tampa Bay is ready to meet the challenge.

The commissioners attending the opening donned white lab coats and helped unveil a plaque recognizing the county’s contribution to advancing genomic research at the USF Heart Institute.

While economic development is a critical piece of the Heart Institute’s evolution, Dr. Liggett noted that the ultimate goal of the research is to improve and save lives.

“I’ve been at the bedside of patients with heart disease, asthma, COPD and other diseases,” said Dr. Liggett, a physician with basic science expertise.  “Patents, jobs and spin-off companies will come out of our work here, but in the end we want to help the human condition – and that is what we are going to do.”

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 Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications