Precision Medicine: Using Genomic Data to Predict Drug Side Effects and Benefits

Gene Variant and Corornary Heart DiseasePeople with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiovascular disease, and at an earlier age than other people. Several years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that drug developers take special care to show that potential drugs to treat diabetes don’t adversely affect the cardiovascular system [1]. The challenge in implementing that laudable exhortation is that a drug’s long-term health risks may not become clear until thousands or even tens of thousands of people have received it over the course of many years, sometimes even decades.

Now, a large international study, partly funded by NIH, offers some good news: proof-of-principle that “Big Data” tools can help to identify a drug’s potential side effects much earlier in the drug development process [2]. The study, which analyzed vast troves of genomic and clinical data collected over many years from more than 50,000 people with and without diabetes, indicates that anti-diabetes therapies that lower glucose by targeting the product of a specific gene, called GLP1R, are unlikely to boost the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, the evidence suggests that such drugs might even offer some protection against heart disease.

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Taking Control: Learn More About Accessing Your Health Information

Woman looking at electronic medical records on her smartphone

Credit: Lydia Polimeni, NIH

Usually, I share cool science advances and major medical breakthroughs on this blog. But, today, I’d like to share something a little different, something of great importance for both your health and the advancement of biomedical research: new guidelines on how you can access your own health information.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule has long supported the right of individuals to request and obtain copies of their medical records and other health information maintained by health-care professionals, medical facilities, and health insurance plans. However, due to the increasing use of online health-information technology and growing interest among Americans in being active participants in health-related decisions, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued much-anticipated guidance that serves to answer common questions and clarify key issues regarding access to health information under HIPAA. Think of it as a valuable personal roadmap for navigating a part of health care that is all-too-often confusing and frustrating!

Among the many reasons that people need easy, affordable access to their health records is to empower them to take more control over decisions regarding their health. Such information can help individuals improve their ability to monitor chronic conditions, stick with treatment plans, track progress in wellness programs, and identify and correct erroneous information. In addition, some people may want such access so they can directly contribute their health information to biomedical research projects. One such endeavor is the new, NIH-led Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort, in which 1 million or more volunteers will agree to share data, including information from their health records. Maintaining the security and privacy of individual information will be of paramount importance. In return, participants will have the highest levels of access to their study results, along with summarized results from across the cohort.

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Bold Blueprint for Precision Medicine Initiative’s Research Cohort

Twitter Chat

Caption: #PMINetwork Twitter chat with @NIHDirector Francis Collins, NIH Media Branch’s @RenateMyles, and, in background, PMI Cohort Program Acting Director @NCCIH_Josie Briggs.
Credit: @KathyHudsonNIH

Readers of this blog know how excited I am about the potential of precision medicine for revolutionizing efforts to treat disease and improve human health. So, it stands to reason that I’m delighted by the positive reactions of researchers, health professionals, and the public to a much-anticipated report from the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director. Topping the report’s list of visionary recommendations? Build a national research cohort of 1 million or more Americans over the next three to four years to expand knowledge and practice of precision medicine.

When the President announced PMI during his 2015 State of the Union address, he envisioned a precise new era in medicine in which every patient receives the right treatment at the right time—an era in which health care professionals have the resources at hand to take into account individual differences in genes, environments, and lifestyles that contribute to disease. To achieve this, PMI’s national research cohort would tap into recent advances in science, technology, and research participation policies to build the knowledge base needed to develop individualized care for all diseases and conditions.

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