Researchers from Yale's Center for Genome Analysis at West Campus work on DNA samples. (Josh Hartmann)

Could Connecticut become the Silicon Valley of genomics and personalized medicine?

Scientists worldwide have long been well aware of the work done by Connecticut researchers on the human genome – the dizzyingly complex blueprint of life.

But now, even those who stumbled through high school science class have realized the potential of genomics for turning the state into a hub for research and businesses.

Capitalizing – economically and medically – on the many discoveries sure to be mined from the human genome could mean a serious boost in both jobs and healthcare breakthroughs.

"This is an extraordinarily promising development," said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut. "It's the cluster effect. You get a work force that is skilled in the kinds of things that you need."

The partnership between UConn and Jackson, he said, is a win for each. It gives Jackson more power to recruit high-level researchers who also want an academic post, and UConn "can leverage its position with Jackson" to recruit new faculty.

When the state announced last year that Maine-based Jackson Laboratory planned to build a $1.1 billion research facility on UConn's campus, it generated excitement in scientific circles. The possible spinoff effect – something like 6,600 jobs in the next 20 years, including everyone from scientists to engineers to chefs – sent ripples through other industries.

Earlier this month, 46 scientists from UConn and Jackson met over two days to discuss their work in genomics. At the end of the two-day symposium, UConn provost Mon Choi said the event provided "momentum -- to do something really big."

Exactly how big remains to be seen, but plenty of optimistic predictions have been ventured about what Jackson's arrival in the state and its partnership with UConn will mean for either the advancement of healthcare or the economics of Connecticut. Carstensen is betting beyond big – he thinks the impact could be huge.

"If Apple opened a research campus in Connecticut, lots of software companies would come here," Carstensen said. "They want to listen in on the keyhole, as it were."

Having Jackson Laboratory here, he said, will result in an environment in which researchers would build off each others work, create new entities and multiply. He said it would create a dynamic comparable to Silicon Valley, where "someone from Google talks to Twitter and together they create a new company."

He points to Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which announced in June its move from Cheshire to New Haven partly to work more closely with Yale. As part of the move, the company will add up to 300 jobs, nearly double its current workforce.

"This is genome research, so you'll have intellectual property research," Carstensen said. For instance, if Jackson researchers develop a genetically targeted therapy -- "to commercialize it, you spin it off" –- Jackson would probably not do it themselves. "So a company will locate somewhere in central Connecticut -- Middletown, perhaps or Meriden -- which will take that intellectual property and build a business," he said.

Others aren't as enthusiastic.

Mark Guyer, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said he's impressed with much of the work that's been done at Yale, UConn and in the private sector. But, he added: "I wouldn't call Connecticut a hotbed" of genomics research. As far as it emerging as a genomics equivalent of Silicon Valley, Guyer said he doubts that's going to happen here or anywhere else.

"In some ways, genomics is a different kind of science," he said. "It requires a strategic approach of lots of technologies that can be applied in lots of fields of research." So it's unlikely that genomics research will be concentrated to any specific geography, he said.

Health Benefits

More than just satisfying scientific curiosity, unlocking the mysteries of the genome promises a revolution in healthcare. It's considered the key to personalized medicine in which patients will have a better understanding of their risks for certain diseases and in which doctors can precisely and quickly diagnose ailments and know what treatments will work best for them.

There are about 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome and about 3 billion base pairs (the rungs in the DNA double helix). To complicate things further, the nuanced ways that those genes interact with each other differ with each person. Each genome is a sort of manual to its owner's life, albeit a very complicated one. The clearer picture that scientists get of the genome, the greater the benefits the medical world will reap from it.

Because every person is genetically different, how they respond to the same treatment also differs. In cancer, the diagnostic tools doctors use now – considering a patient's symptoms, location of a tumor, how its cells appear under a microscope -- are blunt instruments compared to gene sequencing. Rather than treating the cell type of a tumor, drugs will be targeting the specific gene mutations in a patient.