Holly Fletcher | The Tennessean
Nashville is poised to be a leader in precision medicine with the new federally-funded precision medicine center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center will receive a $71.6 million grant — the largest in its history — from the federal government to establish a data research center under an initiative to bring tailored treatment into everyday medicine.
The five-year grant is a pivotal moment for the academic medical institution, which has had a genome and personalized medicine program for about two decades.
Under the grant from the National Institutes of Health, VUMC’s department of biomedical informatics will be a primary piece of the national precision medicine program, which has grand goals to tailor treatment of diseases, ranging from common chronic disease to rare cancers, to the individual patient.
The opportunity to be the home of the center — and a hub for the burgeoning personalized medicine industry — is “a wonderful place to be,” said Dr. Jeff Balser, president and CEO of VUMC.
VUMC will be home to the Data and Research Support Center under the federal Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program.
In the role, VUMC will be one of the primary thought leaders behind the quest to understand how a person’s DNA sequence combines with environmental exposures, or life, to react to medicine, Balser said.
DNA will be collected from patients in participant centers across the country then stored at a biobank, hosted by the Mayo Clinic. VUMC will store the data from the samples, analyze it and manage the research process, Balser said.
VUMC will be working with partners around the country to analyze and research the data, including the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., Columbia University Medical Center, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the University of Texas School of Bioinformatics.
The expertise and thought leadership at the partner institutes will be essential to the success of the project.
“We won’t do it by ourselves. They bring a ton to this” Balser said, calling the competition to house the center “extraordinary.”
Verily Life Sciences, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, will also support the center.
Pushing forward on the national agenda
The federal government wants to map the genome of 1 million Americans to better understand how medicine can be tailored to an individual for better, personalized treatment. Precision medicine is being used in oncology to treat cancers and tumors, although tailoring treatment to an individual’s genetic makeup could be used to treat other diseases. President Barack Obama announced the precision medicine initiative in his 2015 State of the Union address.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is a dedicated supporter of precision medicine.
Over the next decade, Balser expects precision medicine to move from treatment of select diseases such as cancer to helping doctors find the best treatment for diseases ranging from diabetes, depression, heart disease and more.
“It’s not going to be that thing you read about in a magazine and it’s not just that thing if you have cancer they are trying to pick which drug,” Balser said. “It’s going to save lives.”
VUMC previously received a grant from the NIH for the pilot program that set the stage for this initiative. At the time, Dr. Josh Denny, the lead investigator, said the precision medicine program was “a grand experiment: on a scale that has never been tested before.”
In addition to the data and research center, VUMC also received two other grants that are related to the program. One grant is a partnership with Duke University on a trial innovation center. The other funds the medical system’s initiative to boost enrollment in the study.
Fueling local growth
The state, Nashville and the local health care industry will benefit from the creation of a hub of precision medicine.
As the center grows, health care industry experts expect it to attract more companies to the area. Nashville’s health care industry already contributes $39 billion to the regional economy each year.
“Nashville is known as a world leader in a diverse range of health care industry sectors. As Nashville’s health care community continues to drive the industry forward, we are proud that Vanderbilt is poised to lead the nation in the area of precision medicine and innovation,” said Hayley Hovious, president of the Nashville Health Care Council.
Balser said that the grant money and program will bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, even with a conservative estimate of the multiplier effect affiliated with federal grant dollars.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said it was “great news” for the Nashville economy and pointed to the long-lasting impact that is expected from the federal program.
“This is great news for people around the world who will one day see their lives extended and better health outcomes due to the lifesaving information and treatments that will be discovered as a result of this NIH grant,” Barry said.
The health system expects to hire and recruit people to support its new role. It will be looking to bring in scientists, physician and computational scientists, engineers, IT and grant administration staff, Balser said.
The primary center will be housed on campus, although Balser said the health system will look for off-campus space to accommodate all the necessary workspace.
“”It’s a great thing to be in Nashville right now because recruiting to Nashville is a pleasure,” Balser said. “People want to move to Nashville and have fantastic jobs. To be able to fuel that growth … is incredible.”