From donations raised through the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, The ALS Association, in partnership with the Greater New York Chapter, made a $2.5 million commitment to the Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease (CGND) at the New York Genome Center (NYGC). This commitment, combined with a matching gift from the Tow Foundation, was one of the driving forces supporting the NYGC’s ALS research program in 2014. Three years later, the NYGC’s CGND has made enormous headway in the ALS genetics space and has become one of the major leaders in the field. Their accomplishments are broad in that they have sequenced and analyzed hundreds of ALS DNA samples, while pairing this information with patient clinical history and more. We are pleased to note that Tom Maniatis, PhD, one of the NYGC’s original founders and renowned ALS researcher, was recently appointed Scientific Director and Chief Executive Officer of the NYGC.
For part II of our NYGC progress update, today we sat down with Dr. Maniatis to learn how ALS Association donations impacted the NYGC over the years and his vision for the Center’s future.
Thank you Dr. Maniatis, for taking the time to sit down with us today and congratulations on your new position as Scientific Director and CEO of the NYGC. I know you have a long history with The ALS Association. Can you tell us about that and how you got involved in ALS research?
Over 20 years ago, my sister was diagnosed with ALS. Soon after her diagnosis, I was approached by Robert Abendroth, one of the original founders of The ALS Association, about the possibility of chairing a committee whose objective was to attract scientists doing basic research, like myself, into ALS research. At the time, ALS research was dominated by clinicians, which is important, but there was an element of basic cutting-edge research that was missing from The ALS Association research program. I came onboard and chaired the committee with Robert. Together, we brought in basic research scientists, and ideas emerged, programs were generated, and funds were provided. Things really started moving. However, it became clear that in order for this program to become successful, it required a full-time scientific research administrator. That was when Dr. Lucie Bruijn was recruited to help run The ALS Association research program. I worked closely with her over many years to develop and expand The ALS Association’s research committee and programs. The earliest advance was to focus on ALS genetics, which clearly influenced my decisions about helping to establish the NYGC later.
How did ALS research get established at the NYGC?
When I first came to New York in 2010, I had already worked on trying to understand the interactions between astrocytes (i.e. neuron support cells) and neurons, which was funded by The ALS Association. We were working on mouse stem cell differentiation into motor neurons and then later human stem cells. We also studied how gene mutations affected transcription and gene expression. This is an area where I worked much of my life. At that time, the genomic methods were just being developed. It became clear the infrastructure needed for this type of work did not yet exist in New York, so there was relatively little activity in genomics. I reached out to the scientific leadership in New York and was pleased that everyone had the same concern and a common desire to establish a robust genome center in New York City. Our institutional founding members, comprised of the top academic leaders, came together in 2011. The institutional founding members of the genome center provided startup financial support and an agreement to serve on the NYGC Board of Directors. That is how we got started. It was a consequence, in a very direct way, of my interest in ALS.
How has ALS Association funding support impacted the NYGC?
The ALS Association contribution of $2.5 million and the matching grant from Leonard Tow and the Tow Foundation made it possible for the NYGC to create the infrastructure to establish a unique global ALS Consortium. This landmark initiative is defined by data sharing, having common Internal Review Board procedures, including patient consent forms, and an agreement to collaborate in generating and analyzing ALS genomic data. Lucie recently commented on how unusual it was to see something this vibrant and internationally connected come together so quickly. That was really our goal.
Do you have a message for our donors that made this support to the NYGC possible?
I believe that the approach we are taking is fundamentally important for ALS research, as it provides the infrastructure for ultimately developing effective treatments for ALS. We got this important initiative off the ground, but it, of course, requires continued funding. The more patients we can sequence, the more information we are going to have. The cost for each patient for whole genome sequencing is significant. Supporting the framework and infrastructure that allows us to continue this is very important. We must continue to raise funds to keep this initiative going. There is always a threat of not being able to fund it, and as a result, lose the momentum in this program. So, that is the message – to emphasize the importance of the continuity of financial support for the NYGC’s work in ALS research. The ALS Association’s investment in this research will help fulfill our joint mission to better understand the mechanisms of this devastating disease and discover new therapies and therapeutics to improve the lives of ALS patients.
What do you see as the future of the NYGC?
There are three main areas that we are currently focusing on: ALS, cancer genetics, and autism. There is actually some symmetry in these three research programs. The one you know about is in ALS, which is a consortium-based effort to collect genomic data of ALS patients, along with their clinical data. The goal is to harmonize this information in a way that one can explore the nature of the effects of ALS mutations. Dr. Hemali Phatnani leads this program. Her NYGC laboratory and the Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease, reflect our primary objective – to have consortium based aggregation of clinical and genomic data. We use this data to better understand ALS disease pathways utilizing cutting-edge genomic technology and disease models. That is our major effort at the NYGC.
There is also a symmetric effort going on at the NYGC in cancer genetics. Here we are working with Drs. Harold Varmus, Charles Sawyers, and all of the institutional members of the NYGC, with the goal of establishing a large-scale, shared database of genomic and clinical cancer data. The NYGC excels at generating data and one of our real strengths has been in genome sequencing. I think we are recognized as one of the major players in the whole genome sequencing. Because of our unique expertise, we were awarded a prestigious Center for Common Disease Genomics grant from the National Institutes of Health. Obtaining this award was significant, considering we were only in operation for two years at the time.
This grant supports our research program in autism. Because of the cooperation with the Simons Foundation and two of the top geneticists in autism – Drs. Evan Eichler and Michael Wigler – this is a major program at the NYGC. We are also in discussion with various neurologists in the city about establishing a similar program in other neurodegenerative diseases. Our overall objective is to be an intellectual and data center for these major disease areas and enable the New York scientific community to use genomic approaches to study disease pathways, which we obviously feel is required to develop drugs to treat these diseases.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today to share the NYGC story and your vision for its future. We look forward to hearing the many more great successes targeting ALS coming out of the NYGC!
Read part I of our interview on October 6, 2017 featuring NYGC CGND Director, Dr. Hemali Phatnani.