This is the first in an occasional series of profiles introducing you to the people behind 23andMe’s compelling research. Katie Huber is a scientist who spent years studying infectious diseases, like typhoid and anthrax. Here at 23andMe, she has the much less scary task of ensuring that our customers who participate in research are properly informed and that the research itself abides by ethical guidelines.
“If it kills people and is exotic, I’ve worked with it.”
What were you researching before you came to 23andMe?
Before I came to 23andMe I worked as a contractor for the US Navy studying anthrax. I also helped design typhoid vaccines in the Centers for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University with Roy Curtiss III.
My claim to fame is that our typhoid vaccine flew on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011. Because earlier studies had shown that spaceflight triggers a wide range of virulence behaviors in Salmonella, we wanted to look at how the vaccine bacteria behaved under the same circumstances. Would they be able to act as aggressively or would they have trouble turning on certain genes? It was really a way to get at what happens in the low fluid shear environment of the intestine – there are a surprising number of similarities between the environment inside your intestinal tract and the weightless environment of space. The group at ASU is still analyzing the data from this experiment.
Why are you excited about human genetics?
Originally from: Stroudsburg, PA
BS: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Penn State
PhD: Microbiology from Ohio State
Post Doc: Arizona State University
Genetics is just one component of human health and disease; a topic I’ve always found fascinating. During my time with the Navy, we were studying soldiers that had been repeatedly vaccinated against anthrax. Typhoid was a real puzzle since the disease only infects humans. We had to be really creative with our experiments to figure out how the vaccines would behave in humans without actually vaccinating anybody! We ended up collecting a lot of blood samples and watching what white blood cells did when they met the bacteria. In my experience, the people who participated in the research always wanted to know what happened with their experiment — did it work? What did we learn? Did their cells fight off the disease, or did they get sick? Most of the time, we weren’t allowed to share those results with the participants.
Working at 23andMe is a big switch. We’re all about letting research participants (you) see what happened. New research discoveries show up in the blog or on the website so you can see what we’ve found. You can see first-hand the results of your experiment and how you fit in the big picture. We’re making progress and you can watch it take place.
I’m the human rights person who works with the Institutional Review Board (IRB). What that really means is that I’m the one who makes sure that our research obeys all the rules and regulations and who watches out for the rights of the people in our research studies. It is really exciting to see the amount of goodwill the 23andMe studies generate. People really want to participate in our research because they feel like they are an important part of the project. And that’s absolutely true. We are using the results of everyone’s experiences and genetics to find new risk factors for diseases and discover what makes some treatments work only for a subset of individuals with a disease.
Tell us about a recent breakthrough in genetics research that you think will have a big impact.
The breakthrough I’m thinking of is not technically in human genetics. It’s in the field of bacterial genomics – specifically microbiomics. There’s research happening now looking to see how the community of bacteria that live in your intestine interact with each other and with you and what the health consequences of these interactions are. I’m really excited to see how personal genomics intersects with this kind of research. Is it possible that your DNA biases you towards certain microbial companions? Is it really just a chance that some people end up with bacteria that cause diseases like ulcerative colitis and others get bacteria that protect them from getting food poisoning no matter what they eat? I think in the future, the combination of these two sciences will be able to explain so much about how your body works.
What’s one thing the average person should know about genetics?
Genetics is complicated. Only a very small percentage of diseases are 100 percent genetically predetermined — that’s a tiny group. Everything else is some shade of grey, influenced by your genes, your family history of disease and environmental factors. What this means for the average person is that your genes are not your destiny. They are only one piece of the puzzle.
What interesting thing have you learned about yourself from being genotyped?
Two interesting things came from my 23andMe test:
First, I learned that I’m lactose intolerant. This was a shocking result because my very favorite food is and always has been cheese — it’s something I eat every day. I’m a big fan of other dairy products as well and had never noticed any symptoms of lactose intolerance. It was only as I was discussing my results with my mom that I learned that I’d had all kinds of problems with dairy as a child. My curiosity was sparked by this result and got me started researching lactose intolerance and how your diet and intestinal microbes can compensate for this genetic defect.
Second, I had a surprise in my Ancestry. Both sides of my family are very interested in genealogy and have spent a fair amount of time tracking down where various ancestors lived and came from, so I was pretty sure I knew which countries were going to show up in my countries of origin. What no one expected was the small percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage on my dad’s side of the family. We still have no idea where that came from, but it has piqued my interest in our family’s history. I think the genealogy torch has just been passed to my generation.