July 10, 2014

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The Genetic Information Age: How Utah Fits In

By Rachel Madison

July 10, 2014

It’s no surprise to many Utahns that family history is a major area of interest to residents across the state, but hand in hand with that history comes the much more technical field of genomics—an industry that’s also growing rapidly locally.

A panel of experts in the field of genomics spoke on the genetic information age in Utah, why it’s gaining traction, and what it means for the state during a Women Tech Council tech talk event Wednesday. The panelists included Ken Chahine, president of Ancestry.com DNA; Susan Manley, a genetic counselor who is over medical services at Myriad Genetics; Lars Mouritsen, chief scientific officer and director of laboratory operations at Sorenson Genomics; and Reid Robison, co-founder and CEO of Tute Genomics.

Manley said Myriad Genetics was started in Utah as a spin-off from the University of Utah to specifically discover BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer genes. A benefit of starting the company in Utah was the ability to study large Mormon families and their well documented genealogy.

“We were purposefully founded in Utah, and one of the biggest advantages is we have access to a skilled and trained workforce,” Manley said. “We work closely with the U and BYU to find graduates from the biology, life sciences and computer science degrees. The clinical genetics programs at the U and BYU are also strong. We leverage those universities to get scientists from Utah.”

Robison, who founded Tute Genomics in 2012, said Utah has been an excellent place to set up shop because the state has a rich heritage of genetics.

“It also has a lot of tech talent here; we’ve attracted great engineering talent to build up our platforms,” he said. “When we set out to raise a funding round last year we weren’t sure how it would go in Utah compared to the Bay area, but it was very successful. Utah turned out to be a really good climate for financing a business.”

As Tute Genomics prepares to move into another funding round, Robison said a question he gets asked frequently is if the company will be moving to the San Fransisco Bay area.

“Our answer is no; we’ve had great success in Utah,” he said. “Utah has a great workforce, but the geography is a bit of a challenge.”

The panelists mentioned other challenges their companies are facing, but many also believe Utah is the place for their companies to continue to thrive and grow.

Manley said while Myriad has had success in recruiting both locally and out of state, the hardest part has been selling Utah to the people they recruit from out of state.

“We tell people to come out and see it before they make any decisions,” she said. “We’ve all become very good tour guides. There are ideas and beliefs about Utah, many of which aren’t true. We sell Utah as much as we sell our company.”

Chahine said from a genetic standpoint, it’s easier to hire scientists in San Francisco, where Ancesty.com DNA has an office, than it is in Utah. He said this is because if the job doesn’t work out in San Francisco, the person can just go next door to find another job. If they were to move to Utah, there aren’t as many opportunities in the genetics arena.

“Critical mass is going to be important,” he said.

Mouritsen said when it comes to the forensics community, it has been hard to find forensic scientists even though there are some good school programs locally.

“One challenge is when we bring someone in, it’s six months of intensive training before they can actually even review a case and be qualified, which is a huge strain on our resources,” he said. “I wish universities would step up and do that training to help us. Marshall University [in West Virginia] is doing that, but again, that’s not in Utah.”

Chahine said overall, there is no question that genomics in Utah are changing the way healthcare is being practiced.

“Every doctor will need to be a geneticist, but we’re far from that,” said Robison, who also mentioned that care has changed from doctor-centric to patient-centric, which makes genetic testing all the more important to the future.

“Patients should have tests available to them at pharmacies and mailed to their home that can tell them about who they are,” he said.

Manley said it’s been fascinating to watch the genetics industry change over the last two decades because “genetic information used to be a Pandora’s box, where now it’s really very empowering.” She said people can use the information they discover through testing to make lifestyle changes or do medical interventions.

“This personalization of healthcare is a very exciting time in genetics and healthcare,” she said.

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