VAI pursues added research projects

February 4, 2011
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The Van Andel Research Institute announced last month that its researchers have identified methods to expand the detection of genes in blood samples collected from newborns within two days of birth.

VARI researchers looked at adult blood samples, but said the new method that triples the number of activated genes that could be studied would be easily replicated for the study of newborn blood samples.

For more than 20 years, newborn blood samples have been collected and stored in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Japan and European and South American nations for use in research.

In 2009, VARI researchers detected more than 3,000 activated genes in the blood samples. Their work with the new method, using commercially available tools, brought the number to 9,000.

“We were looking for the best possible way to extract the most information from blood on Guthrie cards using the least amount of this precious resource,” said VARI Distinguished Scientific Investigator Jim Resau.

The VARI research, published recently in Pathology International, used adult blood spots that were from six months to three years old. It found that messenger ribonucleic acid, a molecule that carries instructions from DNA to protein making structure in cells, is “reasonably well preserved in archived filter paper blood spots, whether frozen or not,” according to Dr. Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics and human development at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

The findings open “a very important avenue for clinical and translational research, especially in child health, because the largest such archive is samples used for newborn genetic screening,” Paneth said.

The researchers now will turn their attention to determining the method’s effectiveness with samples of various ages.

In Michigan, blood samples are used to screen babies for dozens of health conditions. Leftover blood from the samples is dried and stored for use in research, public health investigation, and to develop new screening tests and test screening equipment, according to the Michigan Department of Public Health. Samples used for those purposes are stripped of information that would identify the individual.

In 2008, the Michigan Biotrust for Health began to store the samples indefinitely at the Michigan Neonatal Biobank at Wayne State University.

Samples received prior to July 1984 have been destroyed. As of last year, Michigan parents are being asked for their permission to store the samples, without identifying information, and use them in medical research.

The MDCH indicates that a half-dozen studies are underway using Michigan Biotrust for Health samples.

“Genetic information from Guthrie cards is a valuable resource,” Resau said. “It opens doors to examine risk factors and potentially diagnose diseases before the clinical features are present. One such disease might be cerebral palsy, which currently can’t be diagnosed until a child is nearly two. This information also could be used to study pediatric cancers, such as neuroblastoma, which is known to be present at birth in many cases.”

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