2004 - Within the next five years, Dr. Thomas Hudson predicts that the asthma community can identify 90 percent of the genes involved with asthma—an ambitious, but necessary step in finding targeted treatments for the disease.
An allergist/immunologist by training, Dr. Hudson spent 11 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Whitehead Institute working in genomics. “I went there when little was known about the genes involved in common diseases such as asthma, lupus, or diabetes,” Dr. Hudson says. “I thought that if I learned genetics, it would be straightforward to find the genes involved, but in 1991 the resources simply were not available to find the genes associated with complex diseases.”
Now the resources are available, and Dr. Hudson’s lab at McGill University employs the most advanced technology to be had. Using highly sophisticated robots, fiber optic technology, and production units such as groups dedicated to high throughput genotyping, his lab conducts a million DNA tests a week. It’s also a multidisciplinary enterprise that includes statisticians, engineers, chemists, physicists, and those schooled in bioinformatics. “We move very fast in terms of technology,” he says. But that’s only the beginning. “Once we find a new gene,” he notes, “we can start asking the more difficult questions related to how the information can be used in the clinic.”
In the years he spent at the Whitehead Institute, Dr. Hudson, who refers to himself as a “gadget guy,” says he built maps of human chromosomes and developed technologies, such as robots, that test for genetic markers. “Then one day I decided to go back to Canada and do disease research,” he recalls. “Essentially, I viewed the Human Genome Project as a massive tool, and I wanted to apply it.” So he went back to McGill University, where he had done his immunology training, to launch a program in the genetics of complex diseases.
“I wear two hats,” he explains. “I run a medical genomics center, which has a staff of about 100 and applies genomic information, technology, and research to study medical diseases. My other hat is actually to find the genes that cause disease and bring that information to the clinic.” Currently, Dr. Hudson is searching for the genes that trigger asthma. “I don’t think everyone who comes into my asthma clinic has asthma for the same reasons,” he says, “just as everyone who has a fever doesn’t have it for the same reasons. You treat them differently based on the cause of the disease,” he notes, adding, “we have to understand the causes of asthma, and I think genetics will get us there much faster than other technologies.”
Dr. Hudson believes there may be multiple genes implicated in asthma. He and his colleagues have been studying populations in Quebec and Finland, looking for chromosome regions that contain genes that predispose individuals to asthma. The work has led to the discovery of a novel asthma gene responsible for asthma-related traits in both populations. As with the Quebec and Finland studies, all genetic studies will involve large patient populations and their families. “When we study their DNA,” Dr. Hudson says, “we’ll see similarities in people who have asthma versus those who do not. We expect to find not only one gene, but several. We’ll start to understand what it means to have two asthma genes as opposed to one and how they interact with the environment. Eventually, ‘type A’ asthma will be treated differently than ‘type B.’”
Reclassifying complex diseases through genetic typing should help researchers target drug therapy more effectively. For example, Dr. Hudson says, “only half the people with hypertension respond to the initial drug that they’re given at diagnosis. That’s because hypertension is not one disease. We’ll begin to see asthma, diabetes, and hypertension as symptoms,” he adds. “People have these diseases for different reasons and when we understand the reasons, we’ll treat them accordingly. That will have a big impact.”
All the common diseases are complex, Dr. Hudson explains. Multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and colon cancer, among other afflictions, run in families. “For a long time we suspected there was a genetic component to these diseases,” he says. “But we also suspected that the environment has an effect. Now we know it’s both. Epidemiology is telling us genes and the environment are important, but it doesn’t tell us how many genes and what they are.” To sort that puzzle will require large-scale genetic studies.
Sorting the genetic puzzle also will require collaboration. “We’re sharing more information and we’re developing a consortium with Canada, the United States, and Australia, sharing information so that whatever is found in one population can be rapidly tested in another,” Dr. Hudson says. “The exchange of information is as important as what you do at the bench.”
Dr. Hudson, one of seven children, comes from a family of high achievers. His father is a chemist. His twin sister is an M.D. and his younger identical twin sisters are both rheumatologists. He married a high achiever as well. His wife, Catherine Mosco, has a law degree, an M.B.A. and an M.P.H. They have five children, aged six months to 14 years. So, Dr. Hudson wears another important hat—the father of the next generation of likely high achievers.