USAFSAM genomic research goal to provide commanders with new decision making tools

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Genomic research by scientists at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base may provide commanders with cutting edge tools and information to help them successfully carry out their missions.

Genomic medicine, as defined by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is "an emerging medical discipline that involves using genomic information about an individual as part of their clinical care (e.g., for diagnostic or therapeutic decision-making) and the health outcomes and policy implications of that clinical use."

Genomic medicine is making an impact in the fields of oncology, pharmacology, rare and undiagnosed diseases and infectious disease. In a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute, a business and economics research institute, the field of next-generation genomics is termed as one of several emerging technologies which will "transform life, business and the global economy."

The report stated that the Human Genome Project, the forerunner of current genomic research, sequenced the first human genome in 2003, and took 13 years to complete it at a cost of $2.7 billion. Today a human genome can be sequenced in a few hours and for a few thousand dollars.

Dr. Clarise Starr, Deputy Division Chief of the Applied Technology and Genomics Division, and a USAFSAM Microbiologist, said their interest is two-fold; human performance and pathogen identification and therapeutics.

"What we can do is process any type of sample, chop it up, and put it on a chip and get the genetic code," Starr said of pathogen identification through genomics. "Then we have a bioinformaticist decipher the code and try to figure out what is in it."

A bioinformaticist is a specialist in bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes, who not only knows how to use its tools but can also write programs for the effectiveness of the tools.

“Determining this could prove critical for an Airman who might be deployed or in a situation where they might be infected and not want to wait until they are symptomatic to determine what they are carrying,” Starr added.

Genomics can play an important role in the understanding of potential health and human performance issues too.

In the area of human performance, Starr said a lot of it is now just fact-finding and cited some areas which are among many that are being considered through genomics, such as predisposition to altitude sickness, response to medication, or personalizing mental and physical resiliency to keep Airmen fit to fight.

"We all have our own genetic code, and we all are alike, however we respond to things differently from different stimuli," Starr said. "For instance if you give someone Advil they might respond to it well, but another person won't. They may respond negatively to it and that is just because of the way they are wired genetically,” Starr said.

Far removed from its initial massive cost and time consumption, genomics is a field which is rapidly moving into the realm of relatively low-cost technology and portability which could be utilized in the field and even in austere conditions in a short period of time. More importantly for commanders, genomics could provide them with information that their predecessors might never have imagined in leading their people and helping carry out their missions.

"A commander has to take a lot of things in for consideration," Starr said. "The goal is to have tools that could aid decision making."