Here’s Noura Abul-Husn’s recipe for a meaningful career in genomics: Start with curiosity, add adaptability, sprinkle in a willingness to pursue a non-traditional path, and don’t forget to include the most critical ingredient of all – passion.
Following this recipe brought Noura, MD, PhD, to 23andMe, where she recently assumed the role of Vice President of Genomic Health.
Noura spoke with us about her plans to bring genomic medicine into clinical care and her commitment to “keeping people as healthy as possible for as long as possible.”
The following is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
What inspired you to pursue a career in genetics and genomics?
I initially wanted to do biomedical research. I was always intrigued by science, which was my driving force.
I knew I wanted to get a PhD., but I also needed a strong clinical background to inform the type of research I wanted to do and make it as meaningful as possible to human health.
I initially did an MD-PhD program with the intention of being a scientist, and somewhere along the way, I realized I liked the patient care side of things too.
So, I ended up doing a dual residency in internal medicine and medical genetics. I loved internal medicine because you have to know a little about most diseases that touch adult patients, and I liked the broad scope of understanding human health and disease.
Medical genetics is very different. The way you train for it is you learn about rare diseases that mostly impact pediatric patients. But I was drawn to the specialty because we were starting to understand that genomics touches every aspect of disease in people at every stage of their life.
I felt that a combination of general adult medicine combined with a strong genetics background put me in the position to understand the potential of genomic medicine.
I’ve always been excited about genomics because it’s cutting-edge medicine, and it’s constantly changing. As a result, you have to learn and evolve and think about new ways to innovate.
I also think genomics is central to the future of healthcare, and that future is now. The healthcare industry can leverage the vast amounts of data generated through genomics to keep people as healthy as possible for as long as possible. And though that isn’t happening to the extent that it could be, I think 23andMe is poised to make a real impact.
What are you focused on at 23andMe?
I’m the Vice President of Genomic Health, which is a new position. I’m focused on bringing the 23andMe genetics product into clinical care. I’m thinking about how genetic information can contribute to keeping people healthy, preventing and diagnosing disease, and managing genetic conditions or genetic risks.
I’ll be working closely with the product team and others to execute this new vision and strategy.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My biggest personal accomplishment? I had twins! My first instinct when I learned I was having twins was to worry that I would have to stop working and give up on building a career and becoming a leader in this space.
But I persevered, and here we are! (My twins are five now, and they have an older sister – I don’t want to leave her out). I think that was a turning point for me. I had to ask myself, “do I want to continue to work this hard and try to figure things out with an unexpectedly large and growing family?”
Professionally, I took a very non-traditional path as an MD-PhD physician-scientist. First, I started in academia and went to industry for a couple of years. Then I returned to academia, and now I’m back in industry at 23andMe.
In my prior role at Mount Sinai, where I was for four years, I had an opportunity to build something from scratch that I am very proud of. I started a new Division of Genomic Medicine – one of the only divisions of its kind – which had its own Genomic Health Clinic and a unique genomics training program for residents.
We also developed a research program at Mount Sinai focused on expanding the reach of genomic medicine to diverse and underserved populations. I ended up doing many things that may seem different and disparate from each other. Still, they all led towards the same end goal of bringing genomic medicine into clinical care in the most equitable way possible.
What differentiates the work 23andMe is doing from other organizations?
23andMe has always put the consumer – the person – first. They’ve always thought about how to serve a person best and look at that person as an individual using genetic information.
I think that’s extremely powerful. It’s a unique approach to genomic medicine and a unique approach to medicine generally. We practice medicine today based on science that puts people together into cohorts or groups and figures out what medication or management strategy works for most people in that group.
Over the last few decades, we have learned that this one-size-fits-all model doesn’t optimize health for everyone and that we could do better. And we have information at our disposal to make more informed choices, but because it’s a slow-moving field, we don’t optimally use that information the way we could.
23andMe has always had the intention to change that. And that’s what attracted me to this role – the opportunity to leverage genomic information to help us tailor treatment and think about an individual’s risk for developing disease.
The idea of making this a priority for 23andMe is exciting! I can’t emphasize how incredible it is to be a part of this revolution.