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The genetics of success

Ann Haskins Olney, M.D., and Tanner Hagelstrom, Ph.D.

Ann Haskins Olney, M.D., and Tanner Hagelstrom, Ph.D.

The interview is over when Ann Haskins Olney, M.D., pulls a sheet of loose-leaf notepaper – carefully protected behind plastic – out of her bag and shows it to Tanner Hagelstrom, Ph.D.

“I save everything,” she says with a little laugh as her colleague bends over the paper.

The paper is scrawled with the notes Dr. Olney took as an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the day when an especially interesting guest lecturer – by the name of Warren Sanger, Ph.D. – spoke about genetic testing.

Dr. Olney points out one carefully transcribed line from Dr. Sanger: that genetic testing could isolate approximately 60 unique genetic factors.
“How many is it now?” she asks Dr. Hagelstrom, who shakes his head and smiles.

“Hundreds,” he says. “Thousands.”

Genetics has come a long way since Dr. Sanger helped inspire Dr. Olney to enter the field. And as Dr. Olney and Dr. Hagelstrom take the reins of the Munroe-Meyer Institute’s genetics operations — Dr. Olney as the interim director of the clinical genetics department and Dr. Hagelstrom as the interim director of the Human Genetics Laboratory – they are following a trail blazed by Dr. Sanger that emphasized innovation, collaboration and teamwork.

“Dr. Sanger was doing a number of different jobs, under the umbrella terms of the director of the human genetics laboratory and interim director of clinical genetics at MMI,” Dr. Olney said. “He had such a long history here that it was something that he did very well. But when he passed we recognized that there were so many roles that he filled that we probably needed more than one person to do both the clinical aspects of his work and the laboratory aspects of his work.”

The laboratory and the clinical geneticists will continue to have a close relationship, Dr. Hagelstrom said. In fact, the close partnership that Dr. Sanger fostered is one MMI’s biggest strengths.

“It’s the clinicians that initially drive a lot of the testing that they would like the lab to perform,” Dr. Hagelstrom said. “We also have a number of research projects and case projects – they’ll identify unique patients that we’ll try to discover the underlying causes of their abnormalities and we’ll often do that on a research basis.”

The goal going forward, they said, is to continue the close collaboration to identify the needs of genetics patients.

“Genetics is evolving incredibly rapidly, and the types of testing and the types of technology that are being used are expanding almost monthly,” Dr. Hagelstrom said. “By working with group consensus, I think we can identify where the correct path is and identify the way we can serve patients best.”

“It’s an exciting time from many different perspectives,” Dr. Olney said. “One of them is the cancer genetics perspective. That hits home right here with the new Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center being constructed, and our role both on the clinical side, with several of our genetic counselors being dedicated full time to cancer genetics, as well as exciting new testing coming out of our laboratory that our genetic counselors involved in cancer are helping to develop.”

The collaboration between laboratory and clinical staff is in many ways unique, they said.

“That is one of the reasons we’re actually growing,” Dr. Hagelstrom said. “There are a lot of academic labs around the country that aren’t growing right now and genetics departments that are struggling, and we’re succeeding.”

Dr. Sanger’s untimely passing has only strengthened the bonds among the staff, he said.

“Clearly, it was a shock and a tremendous loss, but I’ve been very impressed with the way everybody’s handled it,” he said. “We’ve had everybody in the group come up and say, ‘We’re in this together, we’re going to stick around.’ People who were possibly contemplating retirement have come up and said they’re not going to retire — because they want to make sure that the transition is smooth.

“Everyone wants to keep Warren’s vision going.”

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