Vanderbilt University Medical Center Scores Record Grant to Research Gene-Based Medicine

Posted By Derek Johnson on July 21, 2016 at 12:54 pm
Vanderbilt University Medical Center Scores Record Grant to Research Gene-Based Medicine

Vanderbilt University Medical Center stands to become a national hub of gene-based medicine research after the National Institutes of Health awarded $71.6 million grant funding during the next five years. The goal: to personalize medicine for individual patients.

The grant is the largest in the school’s history and will fund establishment of the Data and Research Support Center for the Precision Medicine Initiative launched last year by the Obama administration. The initiative is a joint effort of the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

It was established to promote and research precision medicine—an “emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person,” according to the NIH website.

What gene-based medicine could accomplish

By leveraging information gleaned from mapping the human genome, improved biomedical technology and big data tools, the initiative will study the genetic and medical data of more than 1 million American volunteers. Researchers hope the results will lay the groundwork for a new, highly customizable form of medicine that is based on a patient’s medical history and genetic profile.

“So all these insights promise the possibility of us being able to cure diseases that up until now we couldn’t figure out. Oftentimes we could, with blunt instruments, treat [them], but it was very ineffective or in some cases at least inefficient,” President Barack Obama said in February during a panel discussion on the initiative. “What we’re now seeing is the possibility of identifying diseases, targeting and individualizing treatments for a particular patient, and operating with the kind of precision that promises to reduce costs, provide much better care and make our entire health-care system much more effective.”

Leading the charge on customizable medicine

Jeff Balser, president, CEO and dean of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says the move “anchors” the Nashville, TN, institution as one of the leaders of “the next era of medicine.” Analyzing the genetic profiles of such a large cross-section of human volunteers could lead doctors to individuals. In particular, Balser pointed to the hundreds of people who die every day from adverse side effects caused by commonly prescribed drugs. Medicines that may work just fine for large portions of the human population may be ineffective, harmful, or even deadly to certain patients because of differences in their genetic profile.

“All of that is because we don’t know enough about the individual,” Balser says. “We try to come out with the blockbuster that will help everyone, but what we really know is that most people need a little different therapy than someone else.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, chairman of the Senate Committee of Health, Labor, Education and Pensions, praised the move in a press release, saying the gene-based medicine research conducted under the grant could help combat and even cure many serious diseases and ailments.

“This could lead to remarkable benefits over time in finding new cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other diseases and advancing the right treatment for the right person at the right time. This is a great credit to Vanderbilt’s research, leadership, and talent,” Alexander said.

Research will depend on volunteers

The gene-based medicine initiative will rely on an army of volunteers and hopes to have at least 1 million people signed up by 2019 or 2020. Participants will agree to provide information such as electronic health records, gene profiles, blood samples and environmental and lifestyle data. Researchers will track that cohort to study how a broad range of diseases including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, mental illness and heart disease react to different sets of genes.

Individual results will be made available to participants while aggregate data will be made “broadly accessible” to qualified researchers in America and internationally. “The key for all this is for us to able to build up databases … If we pool together so that researchers, practitioners, and scientists can share, we may be able to accelerate the process of discovering cures in ways we’ve never seen before,” Obama said.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center was perhaps a logical choice for the gene-based medicine grant after successfully steering a pilot program for the initiative earlier this year. It is not the only higher education institution participating in the program. The Columbia University Medical Center announced this week that it will curate and manage health records and provide observational research for the Data and Research Support Center.

Similar support will be provided by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Northwestern University School of Medicine and the University of Texas School of Bioinformatics.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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