Andi Cani, BS, MS, and Yashar Niknafs, PhD, recipients of the 2018 U-M Precision Health Scholars Award

By Lynn McCain | August 7 2018

Andi Cani and Yashar Niknafs Molecular and Cellular Pathology PhD graduate student, Andi Cani, BS, MS, and Postdoctoral Fellow Yashar Niknafs, PhD, were among the twelve recipients of the inaugural U-M Precision Health Scholars Award.  This award provides grants supporting precision-health research to applicants whose work reflects the far-reaching potential of precision health at the University of Michigan.

Cani’s proposal focuses on the development of a pre-digital rectal exam (pre-DRE) whole urine-based, next generation sequencing assay for the early detection of prostate cancer.  His research builds on that conducted in the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology (MCTP) under the leadership of Dr. Scott Tomlins and Dr. Arul Chinnaiyan. The MCTP research team discovered that the PCA3 long non-coding RNA molecule as well as an RNA molecule generated by the genomic rearrangement and fusion of two genes, TMPRSS2 and ERG, are present in more than half of all prostate cancers and can be detected in urine.  Cani’s project will focus on identifying other prostate cancer biomarkers and creating an assay that can detect early-stage prostate cancer in urine without requiring the currently-prerequisite digital rectal exam. 

Niknafs’ proposal will expand upon work completed by The Michigan Genomics Initiative, which profiled genetic data from over 50,000 patients at the University of Michigan and integrated these data with electronic medical record (EMR) curation to yield a Phenome-Wide Association Study (PheWAS).  PheWAS is a powerful dataset that associates genetic variants with various phenotypes. While initial analyses of these data have associated many genes with various phenotypes, most functional elements implicated in these large-scale variant studies are protein-coding genes due to annotation limitations. With this award, Niknafs aims to utilize a large-scale RNA-sequencing cohort to expand the pool of potential functional elements by integrating non-coding RNA elements. Additionally, he will build a web-tool which will provide capacity to visualize and analyze the RNA-seq datasets as well as their integration with the PheWAS data. 

For a full list of Precision Health Scholars Awardees, visit the Precision Health website.