Leading geneticist to head new UCSF Center for Human Genetics

By Wallace Ravven

Neil J. Risch, PhD, recognized internationally for innovative genetics research on a range of diseases, has been named director of the new Center for Human Genetics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Risch will also serve as the first Lamond Distinguished Professor in Human Genetics at UCSF.

The Center brings together scientists from a very broad spectrum of human genetic studies—from basic and behavioral researchers to physician scientists, and from psychiatry to cardiovascular research—to identify genes that contribute to human diseases and variation in response to drugs. Pharmacogenomics research—determining the genetic basis of variation in drug response—will be a strong component of the Center, a unique dimension among human genetics programs nationally.

The new Center is in the UCSF School of Medicine, with participation and support from the School of Pharmacy.

Risch, professor of genetics, statistics and health research and policy at Stanford University, is widely known for developing and applying an array of approaches to genetic epidemiology—the effort to identify the genetic basis for diseases caused by gene interactions with environmental and dietary factors. He has carried out population-based studies and family-based studies, employed gene mapping and innovative statistical tools to identify genetic risk factors for such diseases as coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and Crohn’s Disease. He regularly collaborates as an adjunct investigator with researchers at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland on population-based genetic epidemiology studies.

Risch has helped pioneer studies of genetic risk factors within groups of people with specific diseases or differences in drug response. He is particularly concerned with identifying genes associated with disease risk in ethnically diverse populations. He will direct the Center’s multi-layered research approach, tapping some of the country’s largest databases of patient disease history and linking this information with patient DNA profiles and basic research findings to tease apart the interplay of genes contributing to major diseases affecting millions of people.

“Neil Risch is a human geneticist of international stature,” said David Kessler, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine. “He brings breadth and vision to a truly interdisciplinary search for the genetic underpinnings of some of the world’s most devastating diseases. I expect the Center’s research will have an international scientific and medical impact.”

Risch takes on the Center’s directorship in the fall as the first Lamond Family Foundation Distinguished Professor in Human Genetics. The support of the Lamond Family Foundation—which also created the Lamond Family Foundation Endowed Fellowship in Human Genetics and the Lamond Family Foundation Core Technologies Fund in Human Genetics—helped establish UCSF’s human genetics program. Risch will also serve as professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

The sequencing of the human genome boosted scientists ability to identify single genes for rare diseases, but identifying multiple, interacting genetic factors underlying many of the most common diseases requires an attack on all fronts: clinical data, basic research and patient DNA samples. One research focus of the UCSF Center will be to apply these combined approaches to identify genes that increase risk to such common diseases as heart disease, diabetes, neuropsychiatric diseases, autoimmune disease and cancer.

The Center for Human Genetics will occupy a large block of contiguous space in the twin research towers and the medical science building on UCSF’s Parnassus campus, a location made possible by re-allocation of Parnassus space freed up by development of UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. About ten faculty scientists and their laboratories form the initial research corps, with about 60 more faculty actively participating from various UCSF research sites. In the next few years, at least eight new faculty members will be hired to join the Center in fields ranging from pediatrics to neurology—an unusually large commitment of precious new faculty positions, and a strong measure of the University’s commitment to the promise of the new Center.

Complementary research in functional genomics—research to understand the function of the 30,000 or so genes in the human genome—and development of new technologies for analyzing the genome will be focused at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, in part within space dedicated to the Center.

UCSF has been a leading force in the field of genetics for decades. University scientists developed some of the basic tools of molecular genetics, devised many of the first methods for prenatal testing, developed one of the most commonly used chromosomal tests, made major discoveries in the genetics of cancer, and established the first genetics clinic in the Bay Area, among other achievements. UCSF scientists are now in the forefront of new research to determine the molecular basis of individual variation in response to drugs.

Research at the Center will extend and strengthen UCSF’s Program in Human Genetics, established in 1997 under the direction of Charles Epstein, MD, professor of pediatrics, and Ira Herskowitz, PhD, a geneticist and professor of biochemistry and biophysics who died last year.

The new Center is one of several research and teaching initiatives on the Parnassus campus taking shape as Mission Bay campus development makes Parnassus space available. Other top priorities include the UCSF Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program, the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Asthma and a range of research in immunology and infectious diseases.

Risch earned his BS in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology in 1972, and his MS in mathematics from University of Illinois the following year. He received his PhD in biomathematics from UCLA in 1979.

He was an assistant professor of public health at Columbia University from 1981 to 1984, and an assistant professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine from 1984 to 1987. He served as associate professor of public health and genetics at Yale from 1987 to 1992, and then professor from 1992 to 1994. Risch joined the Stanford University genetics faculty as a professor in 1995.

He has served on numerous advisory panels to the National Institutes of Health, private foundations and other international bodies. He is a winner of the American Mental Health Fund Research Award and has served on the editorial boards of five journals in his field. He is the author of more than 200 scientific papers including several landmark papers in major journals such as Science and Nature.