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Brownsville Researchers Recipients of Reviewer’s Choice Award, American Society of Human Genetics, for Cameron County Hispanic Cohort

Drs. McCormick and Fisher with text

The Cameron County Hispanic Cohort (CCHC), a research program at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health Brownsville Campus, has been awarded a Reviewer's Choice Award from the American Society of Human Genetics for its abstract submission, "Profiling Local Ancestry Effects on Gene Regulation in an Admixed Population.” This award is given to the best submissions for abstracts focused on human genetics. The findings from this study address the genetic roots of diversity, an essential focus of the School of Public Health.   

The Brownsville campus resides in the center of a predominantly Mexican American community. Mexican Americans comprise the largest proportion of Hispanics in the United States, a population largely understudied in genetic research. The CCHC was established in 2004 to measure the burden of chronic diseases and is now moving to the examination of the role of genetics in these diseases, including genomic ancestry markers that are related to individual geographic and ethnic origin. The population in South Texas identifies primarily as either Mexican or Central American. Ancestry markers in their DNA can assess the individual mix of genetic inheritance from geographic and ethnic origin. The ongoing research involves the community and a wide range of research expertise across the nation. It provides novel information on Mexican American susceptibilities to chronic diseases focusing more recently on genetic components underlying susceptibility.  

The team at the clinical research unit in Brownsville, comprised of well-trained local volunteers, systematically collects extensive sociodemographic, clinical, and biological data on randomly selected local participants recruited from their households. In addition to a wealth of clinical data, the center also archives an extensive collection of longitudinal specimens, including plasma, RNA, and DNA. This approach diversifies the research normally focused on Caucasians and African Americans that comprise most studies in the U.S. Since Mexican Americans are a large and rapidly increasing minority population, this approach has vast implications for a broader understanding of disease and tailored treatment.   

Hispanic communities tend to be understudied in genetics research, and the cohort addresses this absence by studying the surrounding Mexican American population in this area. To overcome this, the CCHC focuses on active communication; using trained workers from the local community who go door to door to educate members of the community about the cohort's work and invite them to participate.   

Joseph McCormick, MD, the James H. Steele, DVM, Professor of epidemiology, and Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, professor of epidemiology at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health Brownsville Campus, co-direct the CCHC and the Clinical Research Unit, which are funded by several collaborative grants and importantly by support from the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences, and principal investigator David McPherson, MD, of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. The collaborations are critical since the scientific resources at a single site are limited. “Scientists at Vanderbilt and UNC [University of North Carolina] are particularly interested in this cohort since Mexican Americans with severe health disparities are difficult to study and missing from most other cohorts for this reason,” said Fisher-Hoch.   

The CCHC also enables students and volunteers from this region to participate in laboratory and clinic research. “We’ve also been providing feedback to the community so that they know of our successes. In terms of scientific advances, the credit goes to the community,” McCormick said.    
This award reaffirms the cohort’s dedication to research in gene function and expression. The long-term goal is to facilitate the design of tailored medicine targeted to diverse populations. This is critical in many areas such as liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.  
“I think it helps to emphasize the importance of this type of work because every group is different. We can contribute to the overall understanding of disease that might lead to new treatments tailored to our community,” said Fisher-Hoch. The abstract, focusing on the gene expressions and ancestry markers in this community, CCHC is achieving wide impact that “emphasize[s] the importance of diversity in genetic research”. 

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