Professor Bruce Weir is a pioneer in statistical genetics—a field revolutionizing the way scientists understand and treat human disease.
One of its applications? “To tailor therapies to people, not just because of their illness, but because of their genetic profiles,” says Weir, who served as chair of the Department of Biostatistics from 2006 to 2014.
Weir founded the department’s Genetics Analysis Center, which provides statistical expertise for large research consortia across the country. Investigators are looking at health issues ranging from prostate and lung cancers to diabetes, stroke and even addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
These efforts were boosted, Weir notes, when President Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative and announced more federal funding for the emerging field. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, precision medicine takes into account an individual’s genes, the environment and lifestyle influences.
“We are very concerned about characterizing the genetic profile of a person, and seeing how that might serve as a protector for future health or for response to therapies,” Weir says.
Led by Weir and Senior Research Scientist Cathy Laurie, researchers devised statistical methods to detect large-scale anomalies – pieces of chromosome where a person doesn’t have the normal complement from their parents. In a groundbreaking study, they characterized these anomalies and found an association with blood cancers.
“It’s a very good predictor of leukemia later in life,” Weir explains. “It’s an important medical problem, and our statistical methods turned out to be quite helpful.”
One of the center’s tasks is to receive genetic data, process it, clean it, do some analyses, then post the data on a public database maintained by the National Institutes of Health, which provides much of the center’s funding. The center has posted about 50 sets of data, which Weir says offer great opportunities for faculty and student involvement.
Weir also takes part in a large study that hopes to better understand the genetic risk factors for Hispanic/Latino populations. Hispanics have a rich cultural and ancestral diversity, he adds, with roots among European, African and Native American groups. “We’re eager to talk to students who are interested in this kind of work,” Weir says.
Weir recently took over as director of the Institute of Public Health Genetics, which offers graduate students exposure to faculty in medicine, law, ethics and other fields. He also is involved in university-wide efforts to create a new master’s degree program in genetic counseling. “There’s a national shortage of genetic counselors,” he says, “and there are no training programs in this part of the country.”
While on a sabbatical, Weir and a colleague from Switzerland began thinking about the subdivisions of human populations, and whether they could come up with a way to better compare populations of different ancestries. “We need to have good descriptions so our analyses in the diseases area are valid,” Weir says. He says they have come up with “a nice new method to characterize population structure, taking advantage of modern extensive data sets.”
When he joined the UW faculty from North Carolina State University, Weir brought the Summer Institute of Statistical Genetics with him. The popular summer program has since expanded to include other short summer courses, including a statistical focus on infectious diseases. This summer’s courses brought 850 people to the UW campus. “It’s a good showcase for our talents, and introduces people to the university,” Weir says.
Weir’s own journey into statistics and genetics began when he was majoring in mathematics in New Zealand and landed a summer internship with a statistician who worked on genetic data. That statistician had recently returned from a sabbatical in North Carolina. The fortuitous connection led Weir to enroll as a PhD student in statistics at North Carolina State University, where he worked on genetic data, mainly plant and animal genes. Eventually, Weir switched to human genetics.
In the early 1990s, DNA emerged as potentially powerful evidence to detect someone’s presence at a crime scene. After several criminal convictions, however, many people began to wonder how reliable the evidence was. “Sufficient doubt was raised at that time that the FBI asked me if I could help them shore up the statistics behind DNA evidence,” Weir says.
Weir was called as an expert witness by the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial and again by lawyers for the victims’ families during a civil case against the former football star.
Weir still dabbles in forensics, giving talks, conducting short courses and writing papers. “It’s required a great deal of careful thinking about the statistics,” he says. “The biology is sound. The nature of the data has changed. We’re now on the verge of using complete DNA sequences.”
It’s not just human genetics that fascinate Weir. He’s still connected to the animal world. Weir, Laurie and graduate student Lisa Brown took part in a study – led by Samuel Wasser in UW’s Department of Biology – that used DNA evidence to pinpoint elephant poaching in Africa.
More About Bruce Weir
- PhD, Statistics, North Carolina State University, 1968
- BS, Mathematics, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, 1965
- Author, Genetic Data Analysis, 1990
- Director, Public Health Genetics Program
- Joint Member, Division of Public Health Sciences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
- Adjunct Professor, Department of Genome Sciences