Teal Pennebaker
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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.


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Adam Gorlick
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Genetic mapping has led scientists to a better understanding of human disease and how to fight ailments like diabetes, mental illness and cancer.

But the information they have to work with is limited, drawing mostly from the DNA of people with European bloodlines. When it comes to figuring out how genetic disorders affect groups who don’t share that ancestry or have only trace amounts of it in their family histories, researchers are often at a loss.

Andres Moreno is changing that. Thanks to the $100,000 he is receiving as this year’s recipient of the George Rosenkranz Prize for Health Care Research in Developing Countries, the Stanford researcher will analyze the DNA of indigenous groups and cosmopolitan populations living in Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.

The data he gathers will lay the groundwork for scientists interested in knowing how genetic diseases take hold and manifest themselves among Latin Americans – one of the most underrepresented populations in the field of genetics.

“We can’t start talking about how to deliver personalized medicine in Latin America because we still have much to learn about their genetic makeup at the population level,” said Moreno, a research associate at School of Medicine’s genetics department.

“We need to draw the genetic map that will allow us to better understand the genetic basis of multiple conditions that lead to major health problems in Latin America,” he said.

Scientists have found numerous genetic variants linked to complex traits among people with European backgrounds, and that connection has allowed doctors to better treat and prevent diseases in that group.

But without a rich database built on the DNA of people whose family trees are rooted in Latin America, researchers have yet to find the genetic key to explain why descendants of region’s indigenous populations are predisposed to particular conditions.

Obesity, for example, is more prevalent in Mexico than in other parts of the world, Moreno said.

“We need to find population-specific gene variants that don’t exist anywhere else but locally,” he said. “Then we can maybe find the gene behind obesity there.”

Other conditions may be addressed by studying locally adapted populations, such as those living at high altitude in the Andes where pregnant women have a five-fold higher rate of maternal hypertension than the native population.

“We are trying to identify the genetic variants underlying the mechanisms for this protection, which may help to design preventive and therapeutic measures worldwide,” Moreno said.

Stanford’s Center for Health Policy, a center of the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, administers the Rosenkranz award that will fund Moreno’s work. The prize was created in 2007 to foster the research of a young Stanford scholar committed to improving health care in developing countries and reducing health disparities across the globe.

The first recipient was Eran Bendavid, an assistant professor of medicine and a CHP associate.

“We believe Andres’ work will deepen our understanding of the genetics of disease across populations, and we are delighted to recognize his important scientific contributions,” said Douglas Owens, director of the Center for Health Policy, the Henry J. Kaiser, Jr. Professor in the School of Medicine and an FSI senior fellow.

The Rosenkranz prize was established by the friends and family of Dr. George Rosenkranz, the scientist who helped first synthesize Cortizone in Mexico in 1951.

Rosenkranz, who lives in Menlo Park, also synthesized the active ingredient for the first oral birth control and served as a CEO of Syntex, a Mexican pharmaceutical company.

In addition to Owens, members of the award selection committee included: Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford; Rosamond Naylor, the William Wrigley Senior Fellow at FSI and Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment; Paul Yock, the Martha Meier Weiland Professor in the medical school; and Michele Barry, the medical school’s senior associate dean of global health and director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health.

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Research Assistant

Kimani McDonald joined Stanford Health Policy in August 2010 as a research assistant for Dr. Paul Wise. While at SHP, she will be completing her independent research project on Ethiopia's Health Extension Program. She also currently works at the Stanford Medical School to develop and coordinate the Program in Integral Health, which aims to conduct scientific research into the mechanism of action for specific complementary and alternative medicines. She hopes to fuse these two interests in her professional career. Kimani was born and raised in Jamaica, and lived in East Africa for some time. She graduated from Stanford with a major in Human Biology and A/C in International Public Health in June 2010, and plans to attend graduate school in Fall 2011.

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