UC Davis hopes to become genomics leader with new testing center

The University of California, Davis’ three-year effort to establish itself and the Sacramento region as a hub for genetic testing on the West Coast took a step forward last week with the opening of university’s new genomic testing facility in Sacramento.

Once it’s fully operational, the center is expected to conduct high-level genetic sequencing to advance the university’s research in the realms of medicine and agricultural science.

A genome is a collection of all the genes in an organism. The human genome, for example, has about three billion genetic characters. In genetic sequencing, a genetic sample is tested to determine an organism’s DNA sequence. Knowing this helps researchers identify genetic mutations, which in some cases cause cancer.

UC Davis’ new genetic testing facility, housed at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, is opening in partnership with BGI, a Chinese company founded in 1999 that is now the largest genomic sequencing firm in the world. The opening of the center coincided with Sacramento hosting the International Conference on Genomics in the Americas, which ended Friday and drew 45 genomics experts to the California capital.

Within a month, a staff of 30 will be doing genetic testing at the facility in the medical center’s UC Davis Institute of Regenerative Cures building, said Harris Lewin, vice chancellor of research at UC Davis. Most of those workers will from China.

But, within the year the genomics center will employ roughly 200, and is expected to drive genomics testing business to the region, Lewin said. “What we’re going to have here with this facility is one of the largest genome sequencing facilities in the state ... and in the span of a few months I believe we could be among the top 10 sequencing facilities in the world,” he said.

Presently, only three such centers exist in the U.S., one at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., another at Baylor University in Texas and the third the Broad Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lewin said.

Under the collaboration between UC Davis and BGI, the company will pay rent to the university for use of the building space. In turn, the university will get discounted rates for whatever sequencing projects it does on BGI’s expensive and technologically advanced machines.

Getting the building ready for the new center demanded an $8 million dollar investment from UC Davis. BGI has invested $10 million in sequencing equipment, Lewin said.

The sequencing prowess of the new center will vastly outpace what can be done presently at the university’s existing genomic center, officials said.

“I had to make a strategic decision as to whether to invest several million dollars to expand our sequencing capacity or to partner with someone who already had large sequencing capacity. I chose the latter,” Richard Michelmore, director of the UC Davis genome center, said of his decision three years ago to seek a partnership with BGI.

“By partnering with the largest sequencing operation in the world, we have gained unparalleled access to large-scale sequencing capacity for the whole campus. This arrangement will increase our sequencing capacity ten to twenty fold while keeping the turn-around time to a minimum allowing timely completion of projects,” Michelmore said.

Lewin said the success of the center is dependent on faculty raising funds to drive large scale DNA sequencing projects.

He added that the university plans to make use of the sequencing equipment in the agriculture, where it is in the midst of sequencing a range of plants including lettuce and peanuts, as well as the pathogens that ravage them. It also will likely prove crucial to the university’s medical research, particularly in identifying genetic mutations that lead to cancer in humans.

Lewin said it is no accident that the center is being located in the same building that houses the Institute for Regenerative Cures. “We have the cancer center here and there is a huge implication here for cancer diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “So we’re really looking for big impacts across the board in the bio-medical realm.”

The implications of gene sequencing in the medicine was a common refrain at the genomics conference.

At the conference, scientists like Jasper Rine, professor of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, said that gene sequencing offerings researchers the opportunity to offer safe, simple and cost effective treatments to diseases. He said that research on mutations in human enzymes was the most telling example.

“There are many genetic differences that make people’s enzymes less efficient than normal, and simple supplementation with vitamins can often restore some of these deficient enzymes to full working order,” said Rine.

He believes genomic sequencing will allow the medical community to prescribe preventative measures by looking at a person’s genome to determine whether a mutation exists that makes a person prone to disease or vitamin shortages.

“If we’re going to look for good news in the human genome, it would be about the information in our genomes that are non-frightening, actionable, safe and effective,” said Rine. “And the inexpensive part means that we’ll never have any competition from the pharmaceutical industry.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee