NIMHD Sponsors International Scholars at NIH Genetics and Genomics Summit

NIMHD supported two researchers from the Caribbean and Latin America to attend the first annual NIH-supported International Summit in Human Genetics and Genomics, held on the NIH campus on September 1–30, 2016. The summit is a 5-year initiative designed to help developing nations build and expand their knowledge base, infrastructure, systems, and technologies in genetics and genomics in order to help them understand the prevalence and basis of genetic diseases in their nations and address their public health challenges.

NIMHD supported two researchers from Cuba and Peru to attend the first annual International Summit in Human Genetics and Genomics at NIH. Dr. Hilda Roblejo-Balbuena (l) and Dr. Heinner Guio (r) are pictured with Dr. Rick Berzon, NIMHD health scientist administrator, who coordinated their visit with NIMHD staff.

NIMHD-supported researchers at the summit included Dr. Hilda Roblejo-Balbuena, head of teaching and research at the National Center of Medical Genetics in Cuba; and Dr. Heinner Guio, chief of the molecular biology and immunology laboratory at the National Institute of Health of Peru. This was Roblejo-Balbuena’s first visit to the United States.

Roblejo-Balbuena researches genetic diseases, which, due to their low prevalence in Cuba, affect a small percentage of the population but with devastating consequences. She also conducts a pharmacogenetics project that evaluates the therapeutic response of patients with schizophrenia.

“I wanted to attend the summit to obtain new and up-to-date information on topics related to this specialty,” said Roblejo-Balbuena through translation. “Cuba is a country with trained health professionals, but technological resources are scarce. It is necessary to participate in events and trainings of this kind to update our knowledge.”

Guio studies the genetic diversity of the Peruvian population, with a focus on the genetics of isolated native communities, which are disappearing. “In our research, we found important information related to genetic variability in Peru,” he said. “Some variants might be related to the development of a sensitivity or resistance to infectious or non-infectious diseases. The process of how to analyze this information and give significance to these variations was discussed during the summit.”

The summit drew 19 participants, including researchers, physicians, dentists, nurses, and counselors from 13 countries across the globe: Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Peru, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Turkey. Events included more than 50 lectures, field trips to the NIH Intramural Sequencing Center and various outside sites, a bioinformatics workshop, and a patient panel. The summit encouraged collaborations among participants and NIH investigators, as well as other investigators at nearby institutions.

“I’ve never been in a big research center with highly specialized researchers and clinicians and equipment of the latest generation,” said Guio. “I have to share this experience with my research staff members and start putting into practice the concepts learned here. In conclusion, my experience was wonderful.”

“My theoretical knowledge of this specialty has been enhanced,” said Roblejo-Balbuena. “I witnessed how new technologies affect the practice of genetics. I also exchanged experiences with professionals from all over the world. We aim to establish future collaborations with the NIH Institutes and with other participating countries. Cuba can offer its experience in the training of professionals in the field of genetics for Latin America and the Caribbean regions and its health system of qualified health professionals.”

On September 23, 2016, Dr. Rick Berzon, an NIMHD health scientist administrator, coordinated an informal meeting with NIMHD staff where the researchers could share information about their work and learn about research supported by NIMHD. The summit’s coordinator, Dr. Maximilian Muenke, chief and senior investigator of the Medical Genetics Branch, head of the Human Development Section, and director of the Medical Genetics and Genomic Medicine Training Program at the National Human Genome Research Institute, also attended the meeting. NIMHD Director Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable said the Institute plans to continue to support researchers from Cuba and Latin America in the future.