Timothy Thornton uses statistical methods to unravel the unique genetic risk factors of minority populations.
As an investigator for the Department of Biostatistics’ Genetic Analysis Center, Thornton and his colleagues are analyzing more than 25 million genetic variants from more than 13,000 individuals with Hispanic heritage.
“Now we’re finding novel genetic variants associated with a variety of health outcomes that you cannot find if you look just at European populations,” says Thornton, an associate professor of biostatistics.
For years, genomic studies have been conducted on European-ancestry, he explains, but very few have focused on underrepresented groups such as Hispanics. Minority populations bear a disproportionate burden of disease, he adds.
“My focus in biostatistics is largely on populations with different or diverse ancestries,” says Thornton, whose work is part of a larger collaboration known as the national Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos.
Hispanics have ancestry from different continents that were previously isolated (Africa, Europe and the Americas). New statistical methods are needed to analyze this data, so Thornton and his students have created and are continuing to work on open-source software that can be used by the broader scientific community.
Thornton also works on the Alzheimer’s Disease Sequencing Project, a major international research effort where researchers pool resources. “The goal is to identify other variants involved with early onset of Alzheimer’s disease not explained by the APOE 4 gene, the major variant associated with Alzheimer’s,” he says.
Working with faculty such as Ellen Wijsman, professor of medical genetics and biostatistics, Thornton is focusing on genetic data from families in the US, Europe and the Dominican Republic. Families from Columbia also may possess unique genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, he says.
Breakthroughs are critical, as cases of dementia are expected to triply by 2050. Researchers ultimately hope to identify all of the genes and proteins involved with Alzheimer’s and develop drugs to target them. “It’s exciting,” Thornton says. “We have extensive data.”
Another of Thornton’s passions is working with Native American communities. He is part of the Pharmacogenomics Research Network, a group of scientists exploring how a person’s genes affects their reaction to certain drugs. Thornton co-authored a paper highlighting the discovery of two novel genetic variants in Alaska Natives that explain why a normal dose of the blood-clotting drug warfarin could be harmful.
“A lower warfarin dose is needed, given their genetic profile,” Thornton says. “It’s the first study in these populations to look at these gene sequences. We keep talking about personalized medicine, and this is an example of the importance of getting the correct dosage.”
Thornton, a soccer-loving father of three who grew up in Virginia, says he always loved math, and knew statistics had practical applications. “I love genetics and can’t think of a greater use of statistics than to improve health,” he says.
Thornton has a BS in Mathematics from Hampton University, and a PhD in Statistics from University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty at the University of Washington, he was a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Statistics at UC Berkeley. He is the recipient of the Robert W. Day Endowed Professorship and the Career Development Award from the National Cancer Institute.
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