How Many Genomes Will Obama’s $215M Precision Medicine Initiative Map?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

After it was hinted about in the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama’s new medicine initiative was unveiled by the White House on Friday. The president is requesting a $215 million investment for the Precision Medicine Initiative, which promises new biomedical discoveries and the tools for selecting more personalized treatments that will respond to specific patients, according to the White House.

“Twenty-first century businesses will rely on American science and technology, research and development. I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” Obama said in the State of the Union address. “In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. So tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

What is precision medicine?

Precision medicine is a kind of medical model that involves tailoring care to a specific patient. Obama said, while speaking about the new initiative on Friday, that “the promise of precision medicine”  is “delivering the right treatments, at the right time, every time to the right person.” Jo Handelsman, associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a phone call with reporters that the model is “a game changer that holds the potential to revolutionize how we approach health in this country and around the world.”

According to the White House, precision medicine has led to discoveries and new treatments based on specific patients’ characteristics, including their genetic makeup. “This is leading to a transformation in the way we can treat diseases such as cancer,” the White House writes. “Patients with breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, as well as melanomas and leukemias, for instance, routinely undergo molecular testing as part of patient care, enabling physicians to select treatments that improve chances of survival and reduce exposure to adverse effects.”

“Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals,” Obama said in his remarks about the initiative at the White House on Friday. “You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type. That was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard?  What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?”

How the money will be spent

The $215 million will be additional money added to the budgets of institutions, rather than reallocated, and it will be allotted as such: $130 million will go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a national research program that will track the data of 1 million volunteer donors, including their DNA sequences. The National Cancer Institute will receive $70 million for research into the genetic drivers of cancer. Another $10 million will go to the Food and Drug Administration to work on new regulatory structures to deal with approving more personalized drugs, and $5 million will go to office of the National Coordinator for information technology systems.

Potentially a logistical nightmare?

It should be noted that the NIH isn’t recruiting a million new volunteers to track, but merging some data from more than 200 existing cohort studies across the country. “Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, according to MIT Technology Review. “The challenge of this initiative is to link those together. It’s more a distributed approach than centralized.”

The logistics of such a large project might be where it hits a snag, though. “They’re going to have severe problems because the federal government refused to demand data standards,” said Ross Koppel, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in health care IT, to Gizmodo.

But, while it may have some roadblocks, the initiative could have some interesting results. Collins said the study could lead to completely decoding the genomes of hundreds of thousands of people. It would be quite a step, but one that the scientific community is ready for. Collins led the Human Genome Project, which began planning in the 1980s and successfully mapped the genome by 2003. Since then private sector efforts by Illumina have led to a significant cost drop in the cost of analyzing a human genome: from $400 million to $1,000.

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