August 5, 2011

Around the world, with medical genetics

Mercy Laurino, a graduate student in the Institute for Public Health Genetics, has had an illustrious career at a young age.  She was part of a team — including collaborators from Seattle Childrens — that helped launch the Pediatric Neurogenetics Clinic at the University of Washington Center on Human Development and Disability in November 2005.  As a genetic counselor at the UW Medical Center Genetic Medicine Clinic, Laurino has worked with a range of patients, including those with cancer and juvenile Huntingtons disease.

Laurino, who hails from the Philippines, has long maintained a clinical and research interest in the Asia Pacific region.  There are only seven medical geneticists serving 92 million people in the Philippines, she said. And there is an increasing demand for trained genetics specialists to provide clinical diagnosis, management and support of vulnerable patients with genetic conditions.

UW's Mercy Laurino, second from left (bottom row) with colleagues and students from the University of the Philippines -Manila.

Dr. Carmencita Padilla, a medical geneticist from the Philippines, asked Laurino to help develop a training program for the country.  She accepted, after considerable thought about how this might change her life, at least temporarily.  “I vividly remember when Dr. Padilla offered me the opportunity to collaborate with her to create the first genetic counseling training program in the country,” said Laurino.  “We initially met in San Diego in 2007 at the American Society in Human Genetics Meeting, and I was apprehensive to accept the offer without speaking with my family and colleagues.”

At the time, Laurino had worked as a genetic counselor for five years at the UW and was conflicted about making a major change.  “I enjoyed my job, but I also had a personal urge to bring the field of genetic counseling to my home country,” she said.

Laurino said that she sought advice from Peter Byers, UW professor of pathology and medicine and director of the UW Medical Centers Medical Genetics Clinic. “He eloquently said, ‘Do what you love. Its that simple,” she said.

In May 2008, Laurino contacted Padilla in the Philippines and accepted her offer.  With advice from other colleagues, Laurino also decided to enroll in the PhD program at the UW Institute for Public Health Genetics.  “I knew that it would enhance my knowledge on the ethical, legal and social implications of genetics, from clinical and research perspectives, in our society,” she said.

In summer 2009, Laurino, Padilla and others began developing a curriculum to train genetic counselors. Laurino returned to Seattle in the fall, and started required courses for her doctoral training.  After multiple conversations over Skype, email and telephone, and visits to the Philippines, the University of the Philippines in Manila approved the proposed curriculum in February 2011.

The young counselor said that she can barely contain her excitement about whats being accomplished.  “This big step is timely, too given the recent inception of the Philippine Genome Center,” she said.  In June, 10 genetic counseling students began training in the program.