Science & Research

Dr. Geoff Hicks

BY JOEL SCHLESINGER
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2012

Winnipeg has long been a leader in the world of genetic research. Dr. Geoff Hicks is building on that tradition.

More than a decade ago, the Director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine returned home from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do what many others in the research community thought was years away from being possible: functionally mapping the genetics of human disease.

At the time, it was widely thought it would take years if not decades. But Hicks found a way to do it in a matter of days. And he has a mouse to thank for his success.

It's a special kind of rodent - one called a "knock-out mouse." Hicks and his team didn't invent the knock-out mouse - a lab animal that has one of its 22,000 genes either muted or expressed to emulate disease in humans. What he did was find a shortcut to identify the genes involved in the cause of disease.

He looked at gene sequences instead of single genes, which advanced the hunt for the genetic causes of disease ahead of schedule by decades. In fact, Hicks's work became a foundational part of genomic research (studying all genes at the same time). And that success helped lead to the foundation of the world-renowned Mammalian Functional Genomics Centre in Winnipeg - one of only four in the world.

Today, the centre has stem cell models to breed lab mice specifically designed for research on thousands of different human genetic variations of disease.

"In the last four years, we've gone from a handful of knock-out mouse models being available to one now being available for almost every gene," he says. This has helped move research for cures from the test tube to living organisms - mice - with which we share most of our genetic makeup.

"We can now determine from studying these mice that if you have this gene variation, you might be susceptible to this disease, or that this particular treatment may work for you or be very harmful," he says. "It's really helped usher in the age of personalized medicine."

Wave: November / December 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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