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Neil Hanchard unravels the complexity of childhood diseases, aims to diversify genomics research

Dr. Hanchard talks about his journey into genetics research, his collaborations with international researchers, and the importance of determination in science.

If you ask Neil Hanchard, MBBS, D.Phil., how he decided to become a scientist, he says that it was a complete accident.

“Serendipity,” he says, “Perhaps divine intervention.”

Dr. Hanchard originally trained as a physician. But an international scholarship brought him to the United Kingdom, where he had his first foray into genetics research. He dove headfirst into the field and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it, eventually earning a Ph.D. from Oxford University.

“Genetics research just made a lot of sense to me. I found it fascinating,” says Dr. Hanchard.

Numerous studies, collaborations and years later, Dr. Hanchard is now a senior investigator in the Center for Precision Health Research and head of the Childhood Complex Disease Genomics Section within the Intramural Research Program of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

He runs a well-respected research program that uses human genetics and genomics to understand conditions such as malnutrition, hypertension and sickle cell disease in diverse populations. He also works with a highly collaborative international group that aims to study the genomics and environmental contributors of diseases in African populations.

Diversifying genomics research is at the heart of Dr. Hanchard’s work.

“We are trying to lay the groundwork that having diversity in genomics is useful as we push medicine and genetics forward,” he says. “We hope to build awareness alongside doing the work ourselves.”

A serendipitous start

Dr. Hanchard grew up in Jamaica and attended medical school at University of the West Indies in Kingston. When he received a Rhodes scholarship, he had the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford. But there was one caveat: he had to complete a postgraduate degree first.

“I flirted with the idea of studying anthropology or something like that,” he says. “But a very good mentor and friend talked me into doing a Ph.D.”

Because his interest was in pediatric medicine, he reached out to the pediatrics department, where several research projects on genetics and pediatrics piqued his interest.

Never having conducted any type of research before — let alone genetics research — he was only guided by his curiosity and intrepid attitude.

Around the same time, the results of the Human Genome Project were coming out. An international effort spanning 13 years, the Human Genome Project was a landmark study that generated the first sequence of the human genome. The timing was perfect for Dr. Hanchard; new discoveries about the human genome would be revealed by the time he finished his Ph.D.

During his Ph.D., Dr. Hanchard studied genomic variation and complex traits. He also completed a pediatric residency at the Mayo Clinic, followed by a medical genetics fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine.

When he started his own research group at Baylor College of Medicine, the focus of his work was an obvious choice: he would study the genetics of childhood complex diseases, which was at the intersection of all his scientific interests.

“I wanted to study quantitative complex traits related to the training that I received for my Ph.D.,” Dr. Hanchard says. “I also wanted to investigate pediatric diseases and make use of my clinical genetics training. So, the genetics of childhood complex diseases was a nice combination of those three things.”

Diversifying genomic research

After nearly 10 years as an investigator at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Hanchard joined NHGRI in 2021 as a senior investigator in the Center for Precision Health Research.

At NHGRI, he continues to study complex childhood diseases, such as early onset hypertension and different forms of malnutrition, teasing apart the genetic contributions of these conditions. He also has projects studying how genetic heterogeneity influences the variable response to blood transfusion treatments seen in patients with sickle cell disease.

Many of the conditions that Dr. Hanchard studies are more common in individuals of African ancestry. In fact, diversity is at the core of his research program.

“In every facet of genetics, the inclusion of diverse populations not only provides better healthcare for those populations, but also allows researchers to have a breadth of information that is applicable to everyone,” he says.

Prior to joining NHGRI, Dr. Hanchard was involved in an NIH-funded Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative.

Although the 10-year initiative has now formally finished, Dr. Hanchard and his collaborators in the H3Africa Consortium published a groundbreaking study in Nature in 2020.

In every facet of genetics, the inclusion of diverse populations not only provides better healthcare for those populations, but also allows researchers to have a breadth of information that is applicable to everyone.

“When we sequenced the genomes of individuals across Africa, we found millions of novel genomic variants that had not yet been reported,” he says.

Previously, only a small portion of the genomic diversity in African population was studied. Dr. Hanchard’s group has unveiled rich genomic diversity that not only offers the potential to improve the healthcare of those with African ancestry, but also helps researchers understand how the human genome has been shaped over centuries.

“Africa is known to have much more genomic variation and deep ancestral trees shaped by years of migration, climate change, infectious diseases and diet changes,” says Dr. Hanchard. “With more than 2,000 ethno-linguistic groups and 54 different countries in Africa, there is an incredible tapestry of diversity and genomic variation that is highly relevant for health, anthropology and history.”

Divining the future of genomics

Given his efforts to enhance diversity in all aspects of genetics and genomics research, Dr. Hanchard is looking forward to a more equitable future.

“I’m excited to see a future in which genetics and genomics are much more diverse — not only in terms of participants — but also in terms of the people who are driving the research.”

As genomic technologies advance quickly, he notes that researchers are only starting to understand the human genome and all of its complexity. As the field of precision medicine becomes more mainstream, he hopes that researchers will better understand why individuals respond differently to treatments based on their genetics, or why some individuals are more responsive to changes in their diet or environment than others.

“We are at an inflection point where we are going to be able to see not only how genetics works in terms of health and disease, but also how it intersects with the environment and other social determinants of health,” says Dr. Hanchard.

When asked what advice he would give to younger scientists, Dr. Hanchard passes on what his mentor told him years ago: Don’t give up.

“It was not what I was expecting to hear. It was a bit underwhelming to be told, ‘Don’t give up.’ But it turned out to be the best advice by far,” he says. “There will inevitably be a fair number of setbacks and things that don’t go well. But if you can persevere through those things, you might be surprised.”

He also emphasizes the importance of having mentors, finding a community and identifying ways of coping with stress. He notes that having them provides the resilience needed to keep going.

On a final note, he muses about the realities of science.

“We often think of science in a very guarded way: as very objective and very linear. Science is built around that ethos, but the reality is that science is messy,” he says. “Recognize what your strengths are as a scientist, lean into those strengths and keep pressing on.”

Last updated: January 19, 2023