School of Public Health named to national precision medicine program

Monday, July 25, 2016 - 1:59pm

The University of Michigan School of Public Health has been named as one of the institutions to participate in the Data and Research Support Center, a program funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The program is part of a national project, announced by President Barack Obama in January 2015, called the Precision Medicine Initiative. Funded by the NIH, the initiative dedicates $55 million to help further research in the growing field of precision medicine.

Precision medicine — previously as personalized medicine — aims to treat diseases individually based on each patient’s lifestyle, medical history, environment and genetics. Using precision medicine, doctors can better create tailored treatment plans that are more effective and efficient for patients than those planned for the average population.

There are several components to the initiative: enroll one million participants, collect their genetic samples and health data, and make the data accessible to researchers and scientists. The University will work with several other institutions to develop ways to gather and organize the data from various participating health systems.

The program as a whole will also develop methods to analyze the data and protect the privacy of those who share it.

Goncalo Abecasis, chair of the University's Biostatistics Department and the Felix E. Moore Collegiate Professor of Biostatistics, said the University’s particular role is to develop tools for scientists to better understand and use the collected data.

“We are part of a team that’s led out of Vanderbilt and Google,” Abecasis said. “They’re going to be organizing all the data and genetic information coming in from the different health systems. Our particular role is going to be to develop research tools that scientists can use to ask questions about the data. For example, they can log into a secure environment and explore the data and understand a specific connection between a certain gene and a certain disease.”

One reason the University was chosen to participate in the program is it's role as a leader in precision medicine research, with current areas of expertise including precision oncology, drug development and targeted therapies, obesity research; health outcomes research and analysis; social research and new approaches to big data.

In addition, the University Health System is one of several major medical centers that gathers genetic data and relevant health information from patients who consent to share it for research purposes. For example, the Michigan Genomics Initiative — which began before the Precision Medicine Initiative was announce — has the genetic and medical information of more than 32,000 participants.

Abecasis said the Michigan Genomics Initiative was one of the reasons the University was chosen to participate in the project.

“I think specifically why we were selected is because the University has a history of developing research tools for using genetic data and making those tools available and accessible to the community,” he said. “For us, it is a great opportunity to be involved. For a lot of what we do in trying to understand human disease and human genetics, having a study of a million people connected to rich data is going to be the future and the start of many exciting things.”