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Spotlight on research

​Researcher studies disease links in families

If your family was at risk for a certain curable illness, wouldn't you like to know? And wouldn't it be a source of comfort that your doctor knew just how to treat it, based on research performed at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute (MCRI)?

Scott Hebbring, Ph.D. Scott Hebbring, Ph.D.

Scott Hebbring, Ph.D., an associate research scientist in the Center for Human Genetics, is focusing on families' genetic predisposition to diseases, based on their genetic "footprints." He's using the huge database available to him through MCRI's Personalized Medicine Research Project.

Using funds donated to MCRI​, he's "looking at families and measuring heritability of diseases within those families," he said. "I'm also looking at it through families of twins, which takes advantage of an entire patient population within the Marshfield Clinic system." This data is used as aggregate; no individuals are identified. Heritability refers to the amount of disease-causing variations, or markers, that occur because of a person's genetics.

Hebbring is using a new approach he developed, which differs from most research that focuses on a particular disease.

"I'm asking the question, for every disease we capture in the electronic medical record, is there a heritable component? My aim is to identify diseases that have high heritability that we never recognized before."

Armed with this knowledge, he hopes to be able to identify genetic "markers" that will help doctors better treat diseases.

"This could certainly help a physician collecting a patient's family history, to be able to focus on diseases with strong heritable components," he noted. "If we can hone down on these genetic variances that predict and cause diseases, we can likely come up with better ways of treating them." Hebbring has applied for a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue this further.

Hebbring has been working on another project made possible by donations, studying a possible link between multiple sclerosis (MS) and rosacea. At first glance, such a tie might seem ridiculous because MS is a devastating auto-inflammatory condition and rosacea is merely a chronic skin condition causing reddening and swelling of the face. However, scientists have found a possible link between the two that could lead to an effective treatment for MS.

"We think that because of a shared genetic cause between MS and rosacea, medications currently used to treat rosacea could also be used to effectively treat MS," Hebbring said. "We are currently testing this hypothesis and we know that more research will be needed before this is clearly determined."

Gifts to support research can result in such unexpected benefits. For more information about making such a donation, contact Pete Schmeling, Development Officer – Research at schmeling.pete@marshfieldclinic.org or 715-389-3238.