Professor’s DNA research aims to personalize medicine
CLEMSON — In the near future, a DNA sample will be taken from every newborn and analyzed to figure out what diseases could endanger the child’s future, according to Emil Alexov. Doctors could recommend eating a specialized diet or taking medicine, depending on the risks the child faces.
“We don’t like to treat sick people,” Alexov said. “We like to prevent diseases.”
Alexov’s research and a conference he is organizing in August are putting a spotlight on Clemson University’s role in advancing personalized medicine and understanding the molecular mechanisms of human diseases.
Personalized medicine is a fast-growing field that will allow doctors to use individuals’ genetic makeup to determine whether they are susceptible to disease and tailor treatment to them. It holds the promise of preventing suffering and lowering health care spending.
While new methods have made DNA sequencing quick and relatively inexpensive, they haven’t gone far enough to become a routine practice, Alexov said.
“Most human DNA variations are likely harmless by themselves, but some could help explain hereditary diseases and the origin of complex diseases,” he said.
Alexov’s approach to his research and the conference are the same. He is bringing together researchers from various fields to look at common problems from different angles.
Alexov’s research centers on two major projects.
His work in personalized medicine has the potential to translate into real-world cures and therapies. Alexov is also three years into a $2.2-million federal grant to do fundamental research to model “electrostatics” in the human body.
Tanju Karanfil, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science, said Alexov is one of Clemson’s most esteemed researchers.
“Dr. Alexov is focused on health, one of the 21st century’s grandest challenges,” Karanfil said. “His research in personalized medicine could have a direct effect on health in the coming years. The work he’s doing with electrostatics could have a broad impact across disciplines for decades.”
The team that Alexov has assembled for his personalized medicine research includes professors Weiguo Cao, Susan Chapman, Feng Ding and Brian Dominy. They work in close collaboration with a team at Greenwood Genetic Center led by Dr. Charles Schwartz.
The teams’ research encompasses intellectual disabilities, developmental syndromes and neurological and metabolic disorders. They look for how human DNA variants and other factors may play a role in making diseases better or worse.
“We’re at the frontiers of modern medicine,” Alexov said. “The potential for corporate support is strong. We expect to add to the Upstate’s economic development.”
Alexov, a professor of biophysics and bioinformatics, has been recognized as a leader in his field. He is an editor of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences and of Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine.
Alexov has also been named chairman of the Gordon Research Conference on “Human Single Nucleotide Polymorphism and Disease.” The conference is at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, Aug. 3-8.
Researchers from as near as Harvard Medical School in Boston and from as far as Koc University in Istanbul are on the agenda to give talks. Some specialize in genes, while others focus on proteins.
“Gordon Conferences are very prestigious,” Alexov said. “It’s a personal honor to organize one, but I’m also hoping that bringing together the best minds in a quiet, small-town setting will have an impact on research and development.”
Alexov’s fundamental research could also help shine a light on disease causes and cures. His work with electrostatics is crucial to modeling virtually all biological processes and other phenomena in molecular biology and nanodevices, he said.
Alexov expects the research will provide the necessary tools and methodology for understanding the crucial role of electrostatics’ cellular machinery.
The work is sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
The software for his project, DelPhi, was developed specifically to handle the math of the Poisson–Boltzmann equation. It’s a differential equation that describes electrostatic potential in complex systems and serves as the basis for Alexov’s work.
Alexov served for five years as senior researcher in the lab of DelPhi’s creator, Barry Honig of Columbia University.
At Clemson, Alexov is working to improve the software’s speed and accuracy, continuously adapting the program so that scientists across the world can apply it to the rapidly changing areas of computational biophysics and bioinformatics.
More than 2,000 researchers and labs have signed the license agreement and downloaded the software.
“You couldn’t achieve everything with wet laboratory experiments,” Alexov said. “Combining computational modeling with in vitro and in vivo experiments is the best thing to do.
“It saves time, money and at the end delivers better results and even more importantly, provides comprehensive explanation of the effects and phenomena being studied.”