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Our Strength in Personalized Medicine is Leading the Way

Posted by on Friday, August 21, 2015 in From the Dean, Summer 2015 .

Dean BalserEarlier this summer, Vanderbilt University Medical Center was honored to host the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) workshop for the federal Precision Medicine Initiative announced in January by President Obama.

The two-day gathering, led by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, was held so the nation’s leaders in the field could begin to develop and execute on the Initiative’s aggressive plan to, among other things, establish a cohort of at least 1 million research volunteers who will share their biological, environmental, lifestyle and behavioral information with qualified researchers in a de-identified way that will maintain their privacy. This is a massive undertaking, but the rewards will be tremendous, creating a trove of data that can be used to unlock countless medical mysteries and improve the lives of people everywhere.

Affirmation of our longstanding commitment to precision medicine (we prefer the term “personalized medicine”) came when the NIH chose VUMC to host this important gathering, and again when Dr. Collins said in his opening comments, “Vanderbilt is the natural place to come for this part of it, because of the strengths here.” He was referring to our national leadership in DNA biobanking, biomedical informatics and related disciplines, along with our early commitment to and significant investment in precision/personalized medicine.
Indeed, our DNA databank, BioVU, now one of the world’s largest, has more than 200,000 de-identified genetic samples that are leading to discoveries across a range of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, immune system diseases, lung disease and in pharmacogenomics through numerous studies of drug and gene interactions.

Through our strengths in the basic sciences and clinical research, and the ability to leverage our expertise in bioinformatics, we have long since achieved a critical mass in personalized medicine, providing genetic screening for our cancer, heart and transplant patients to optimize the therapeutic benefit of their medicines, offering them the best chance to thrive.

In July, VUMC was the recipient of a $12.8 million, five-year National Institute of General Medical Sciences grant to find better ways to predict how patients will respond to the drugs they’re given. The goal of this research is to understand the genetic variables that put patients at risk for severe adverse drug reactions, and to more broadly predict how individuals will respond to drug therapies.

As a founding member and the coordinating center for the Electronic Medical Records and Genomics Network (eMERGE) our bioinformatics researchers, collaborating with other network members, have developed tools to extract and analyze relevant information from electronic medical records and combine this data with genetic information from blood samples into a single database. The phenome-wide association studies we are now able to conduct from this data are allowing us to rapidly discover new links to a continuum of diseases. Such studies can also help link seemingly unrelated symptoms and potentially harmful side effects of drugs.

In the past 10 years the number of advancements we have been able to achieve through personalized medicine are fundamentally changing the way health care is delivered on our campus and elsewhere.

As Vanderbilt continues to lead health care into an exciting new era, the next decade looks even more promising.


Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs
Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine