Rosenkranz Prize winner aims to understand a population’s health, one genetic ancestry line at a time

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Andres Moreno is studying the DNA of indigenous groups and cosmopolitan populations living in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

Andres Moreno is not just unearthing the genetic backgrounds of many Latin Americans and Caribbeans. He’s also making sense of the history of this region, and piecing together a clearer genetic medical history of understudied populations. By looking at the genetic history of Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Hondurans and Colombians, Moreno’s research unearths these populations’ ties to Europe, native tribes and Africans, and serves as a way to understand the waves of migration in these populations.

And he’s able to do much of this work because of the Dr. George Rozenkranz Prize for Health Care Research in Developing Countries, given out by the Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR) to a promising young researcher.

“The Rosenkranz Prize is such a unique opportunity to promote the work of some of Stanford’s most promising young investigators,” CHP/PCOR Director Douglas K. Owens, also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a professor of medicine, said. “We’ve had researchers from within our centers, and with Andres we have a Rosenkranz recipient who’s thinking about international health from a completely new angle for CHP/PCOR.”

The $100,000 prize is given to young Stanford researchers focusing on how to improve health care access in developing countries. The award’s namesake, George Rozankranz, first synthesized cortisone in 1951, and later progestin (the active ingredient in oral birth control pills). He went on to establish the Mexican National Institute for Genomic Medicine, and his family created the Rosenkranz Prize in 2009.

“The Rosenkranz Prize has allowed me to build research independence upon original ideas and collaborative efforts initiated in different regions throughout Latin America and the Pacific,” Moreno said. “These efforts are paving the way to conduct population and medical genomics research in populations from developing regions traditionally underrepresented in large-scale genetic projects.”

Moreno continued: “This is only the beginning though. There is much to do to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries in terms of biomedical research, so funding opportunities like the Rosenkranz Award are essential to tackle this problem.”

As part of this work, Moreno published article in PLOS Genetics in November 2013, with two more anticipated in 2014.

“In this publication we especially wanted to focus on people in the Caribbean,” Moreno said. “We felt that this region has been understudied in terms of genetic complexity, and wanted to know which part of Africa, Europe and a Native American tribal genes existed. And its implications for medicine.”

In understanding a person’s genetic history, a doctor can determine whether a patient has gene variants that correlate with a disease. For example, because Ashkenazi Jewish women have an increased likelihood of having breast and ovarian cancer, their health providers are more likely to monitor for these cancers. 

Moreno’s advisor and co-author on the PLOS papers, Stanford Genetics Professor Carlos Bustamente, described Moreno’s work on this project: “Andres was extraordinary in putting the data all together, developing algorithms and doing simulation work,” he said. Moreno would seek to understand the implications of their findings, think through how this would affect their design of the next round of experiments and  “translate it into future genetic studies and interpretation of genomes that come into the clinic.”

The findings also tell a historical story of the region. In the Caribbean, Moreno and his co-authors were able to pinpoint where in Africa particular segments of the population had come from and when they contributed to the genetic pool. The first wave of Africans came from the western tip of Africa (present day Senegal and Gambia), a region that was an original contributor for all African slaves. But another strand of African heritage also emerged in their studies—from Africa’s gold coast (Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea). Moreno explained, “We can now genetically pinpoint when and where ancestry came from in Africa.”

Moreno said in looking at the populations, a major difference was between the genetic heritage of the island and mainland populations. In the case of the four islands, there were very consistent results of roughly the same date of European genes—about 500 years ago, which, Moreno pointed out, is exactly when colonization happened.

But in the mainland areas, Moreno and colleagues didn’t find European lines until two generations later, meaning Europeans first settled in the islands and then moved to the mainland.

Similarly, the Native American strands are distinct. Moreno and his co-authors believe that the Native American genes among the Caribbean populations are from inland Amazon tribes—a completely different Native American background than what’s typically found among Native American descendants in the United States.

Bustamente said Moreno has great breadth, commanding the whole operation—sampling in the field, collecting the data in the lab, doing the data scrubbing and analysis. Each of these tasks is typically undertaken by a different person. “He does all of this—and it gives him a real edge,” Bustamente said. “He thinks in a very integrated fashion. Plus he’s an MD!”

Kathryn McDonald, executive director for CHP/PCOR, said Moreno’s work represents the essence of the Rosenkranz Prize. “We really wanted this award to reach all angles of the Stanford health policy research community, and Andres embodies this. He’s expanding our understanding of health care and predisposition for diseases in a host of developing countries. It’s exciting—and such important—work.”

Teal Pennebaker is a freelance writer.