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Dordt College professor receives $392,000 grant for human genetics research

September 24, 2012

The National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Dordt College Associate Professor of Statistics Nathan Tintle a $392,000 grant to work with students on researching how to most efficiently sort and organize the vast amounts of genetic information scientists are generating.

“The Human Genome Project took more than $3 billion and 13 years to discover the gene sequence for just one person,” Tintle said. “Because of major technological breakthroughs in the last few years, the cost to sequence a single person is now less than $10,000 (and dropping), and it takes an inconsequential amount of time.”

Because of these advances, researchers are experiencing a tidal wave of massive genomics data sets, with little clarity as to how to best analyze and interpret such data to provide insights into the genetic component of many common diseases.
“That’s where I come in as a statistician,” Tintle says. “If we are trying to better understand the hereditary aspects of diseases, we need a good way to analyze all of that data.”

Tintle’s proposed research, which one NIH reviewer said, will “provide very good training opportunities for undergraduates,”  seeks to create design and analysis strategies for genetic association studies, with the goal of helping researchers better understand the genetic architecture of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness.

“Advances from this work are likely to be used widely and inspire other statisticians to work on similar problems,” said one of the NIH reviewers in written comments about the significance of the research proposal. Another called it an “exceptional application” and described Tintle’s summer research program as “one-of-its-kind” for statistical genetics, resulting in the placement of nearly all of the student assistants in prominent graduate programs. 

Tintle will be working with more than 20 students from Dordt and other universities over the next three years, and he expects this work will result in various publications in scientific journals that will contribute to the greater body of knowledge in this area.

While Tintle acknowledges that there is some concern with creating massive human genetic datasets, he also sees the potential benefits of knowing more about how people’s genes predispose them to various diseases.  “Clearly, we need to be appropriately cautious about how this data will be used,” he says. “However, I think the promise of the good that can come – identifying and better understanding the way God created human beings – has the potential to help greatly in the treatment of many of the most common and debilitating human diseases.”

Tintle is associate professor of statistics, and along with teaching the majority of statistics courses at Dordt, has recently initiated a new minor in statistics and a major/minor in actuarial science. College and high school students interested in learning more about Tintle’s research and learn how to get involved should visit www.dordt.edu/statgen.

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