Message from the President: Exceptional Science on Tap at ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting

By Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD

The landscape of genetics and genomics research is broad. Scientists of all disciplines and countries continue to advance the field globally. As a global showcase of the latest developments in human genetics, the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting will provide a venue for researchers that perform genetics and genomics research from around the world to exchange scientific knowledge.

This year, ASHG 2020 marks the Society’s 70th anniversary of the Annual Meeting and events that honor our community’s history of discovery. As you scan the Preliminary Schedule, start making plans to make the most of a stimulating week of genetic and genomics research.

I am particularly excited about the Presidential Symposium, which will be held on Friday, October 29 from 5:30-7:00PM EST. I have selected a number of leaders who illustrate the critical importance of human genetics and genomics research, representing a range of topics critical to the field. These include governmental institutions that fund research, biopharmaceutical companies that apply genetics/genomics tools to bring therapeutics to patients, and leaders that advocate for biomedical research. Each speaker will illustrate what they see in—and need from – the human genetics and genomics community, and how these broader interactions can help us face current major challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, diversity and inclusion, and health disparities.

Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), will be serving as the co-moderator of the Presidential Plenary session. Dr. Green has led NHGRI for many years and has been a major ASHG partner in leading the Institute’s research and educational programs as well as other initiatives. His selection as a co-moderator of the plenary session reflects our continued strong partnership and the strength of ASHG’s relationship with the institute.

The following are snapshots of the speakers selected for the Presidential Plenary Symposium:

Gary H. Gibbons, MD, Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), is a physician-scientist leading the third largest institute at NIH. NHLBI provides global leadership for research, training, and education programs to promote the prevention and treatment of heart, lung, and blood diseases to enhance the health of all individuals so that they can live longer and more fulfilling lives. The NHLBI sponsors the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) Program. A primary goal of the TOPMed program is to improve scientific understanding of the fundamental biological processes that underlie heart, lung, blood, and sleep (HLBS) disorders. Among his own research accomplishments, Dr. Gibbons made major discoveries related to the cardiovascular health of minority populations. He has received several patents for innovations derived from his research in the fields of vascular biology and the pathogenesis of vascular diseases. Dr. Gibbons was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 2007.

A tireless advocate and strong supporter of science, Mary Woolley has been the President of Research!America since 1990. ResearchAmerica! is the nation’s largest not-for-profit, membership-supported grassroots public education and advocacy organization. Research!America is committed to making medical and health research a higher national priority. Under her leadership, Research!America has earned the attention and respect of elected and appointed officials, researchers in the public, private, and academic sectors, media, and community leaders with its record of innovation in advocacy for research. Ms. Woolley was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine).

Diana Bianchi, MD, Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), is a physician-scientist. The new NICHD Strategic Plan posits that NICHD’s mission is to lead research and training to understand human development, improve reproductive health, enhance the lives of children and adolescents, and optimize abilities for all. Genetics and genomics play a major role in the new Strategic Plan. Dr. Bianchi’s research has focused on two broad translational themes: prenatal genomics with the goal of advancing noninvasive prenatal DNA screening and diagnosis; and investigating the fetal transcriptome to develop new therapies for genetic disorders that can be given prenatally activity in the intact brain. Her laboratory has a long-term commitment to developing prenatal treatments for Down syndrome. Dr. Bianchi was elected to the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 2013. She has been a member of ASHG for more than 25 years.

A leader in biotechnology, George Yancopoulos, MD, PhD, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, is the principal inventor of Regeneron’s six FDA-approved drugs and foundational technologies, including the TRAP technology, VelociGene® and VelocImmune®. Under his leadership, Regeneron has focused on addressing a broad range of serious medical conditions including ophthalmology, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, pain and infectious diseases, developing potential drug candidates from within their own labs. Dr. Yancopoulos was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004.

Through the development of this plenary session, I felt it was important to emphasize the breadth of the human genetics/genomics field. As other institutes beyond NHGRI are increasingly involved in genetics/genomics research, the perspectives of NIH Institute Directors Dr. Bianchi and Dr. Gibbons are important for meeting attendees. The perspective of Dr. Yancopoulos as a leader in the biopharmaceutical industry is timely, since genetics/genomics research has produced therapeutic products for patients with genetic disorders. Our final panelist, Mary Woolley represents one of the most influential and strongest research advocacy groups in the world, reminding us of the crucial importance of advocacy now and in the future.

As co-moderators, Dr. Green and I will be asking the panelists what they see in terms of the importance of human genetics research and we will ask participants how we should face major challenges in our community during this time. We are also looking forward to providing time for the audience to ask questions as well.

Beyond the Presidential Plenary, the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting will have so much excellent and inspiring science on display at the poster sessions, being presented in symposia, and emerging from discussions throughout the virtual environment and beyond. The opportunity to connect with colleagues both old and new, and to hear the most current research in genetics and genomics today is unmatched in a single venue. I continue to be inspired by ASHG’s annual meeting — the creativity in genetic research, the range of disciplines and techniques represented, and the contributions from scientists who may be attending the annual meeting for the first time. I look forward to connecting with you at the virtual meeting at a lecture, on the poster floor, during a networking event and learning more about your science and what is inspiring you this year.

Importantly, the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting represents an opportunity to fully involve our colleagues who are unable to travel to the U.S. due to restrictive travel policies. The virtual platform allows us to give our colleagues a voice to present and to be heard. As we have learned in this year of uncertainty and challenges, scientific research requires a global community to advance our understanding of human genetics and helping us in our goal toward improving humanity through the study of our genetics.

Thus, the ASHG 2020 Virtual Meeting will include exciting perspectives from all over the world and allow for a more meaningful dialogue with scientists beyond our shores. It’s an opportunity to use a different kind of format to make sure we provide a forum that presents the best genetics and genomics research in the world to the community. I look forward to seeing everyone virtually in October!

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