Howard University Awarded $11.5 Million From Chan Zuckerberg Initiative To Expand Genomics And Genetics Research Capacity

By Sholnn Z. Freeman

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) announced a partnership with Howard University and the nation’s three other historically Black medical colleges to further support cutting-edge scientific research to address significant gaps in genomics. CZI’s Accelerate Precision Health (APH) program will award $11.5 million to Howard University over five years, allowing the University to expand research in the genome field, bring on renowned faculty, fund post-doctoral fellows, and support grant writing for future initiatives.

The $11.5 million award represents the latest stride toward fulfilling a key research goal outlined in the Howard Forward strategic plan –– to leverage Howard’s genetic research to attract and mobilize resources to tackle global challenges, especially as they relate to Black populations. Black communities have been historically underrepresented in clinical trials and genetics research and today are still often excluded from medical studies. Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite Black Americans suffering a higher mortality rate than whites, many studies excluded Black participants.

“To me, genetics research is more than just an academic pursuit,” said Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA“As someone with sickle cell anemia, the study of genetics is not abstract. When I was born, people with sickle cell disease were told that they would not live beyond childhood. Today, a child born with sickle cell disease has somewhere around a 99% chance of living to adulthood. Those advances didn’t happen by accident: Howard researchers have participated in every clinical trial that has led to FDA-approved medications for sickle cell disease treatment. This grant from CZI will allow us to continue to break new ground in genetics and genomics research for generations to come.”

“I am incredibly excited for this new venture with CZI to expand Howard’s important work in the fields of genomics and genetics,” said Bruce Jones, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at Howard University. “Research partnerships at Howard expand our understanding of issues impacting the Black community, from genetics and genomics and other STEM fields, to groundbreaking research in literature, the arts, law and other social science fields, leading to advancements in policy, medicine, and culture that benefit all communities.”

For generations, Howard University has been at the forefront of genomics and genetics research, with a focus on the Black community. More than 50 years ago, Howard launched the Center for Sickle Cell Disease with the goal of providing care for patients and advancing research into sickle cell disease, the most frequent rare genetic disease, which mostly affects people of African descent. Twenty years ago, Howard launched the first large-scale collection of genetic profiles of African Americans.

Today, researchers at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University continue to work on the frontlines of genomics and genetics, including research by Dr. Angel Byrd on gene expression of Alibert Bazin syndrome and other lymphomas that disproportionately harm Black patients and Dr. Bernard Kwabi-Addo’s genetic research of prostate cancer disparities in Black communities.

Specific initiatives at Howard to be funded by the CZI APH program include:

  • Distinguished Professorship/Chair in Genomics: $3.1 million to support the salary and benefits of a new and distinguished member of the faculty in the Genomics department, as well as a graduate student researcher, research associate or postdoctoral researcher, research supplies and support.
  • Ph.D. Research Postdoctoral Fellows: $1 million to support the hire of postdoctoral research fellows to support the work of tenure-track and tenured faculty.
  • Summer Faculty Research Fellowships: $3.7 million in funding for fellowships to ensure every Howard tenure-track assistant professor has access to the support needed to continue their research –– even during the summer months when assistant professors have previously required financial support from a research grant, teaching assignment or other external source.
  • Grant Writing Support: $1.8 million to provide proposal writing assistance, with an emphasis on new investigators without a strong funding history.

The new partnership will create new opportunities for cross-collaboration between Chan Zuckerberg Initiative staff and Howard faculty and students, including: the matching of Howard faculty expertise with other CZI research partners to foster joint interdisciplinary efforts and research; CZI professional development and training opportunities for Howard faculty; and opportunities for Howard students to learn new techniques outside of their home institution.