The Penn State Hershey Medical Center is reaching out to patients to participate in research at its new Institute for Personalized Medicine, an endeavor dedicated to improving healthcare in the future by sequencing and examining the human genome.
Institute director James Broach said all of Hershey’s current patients, around 250,000 in total, will be approached with the opportunity to participate in the research. Their genomes will be sequenced and coupled with past medical records as well as blood and tissue samples for optimal data collection.
Most patients who volunteer to participate in the research will be in good health and will serve as controls to the existing experimental groups, Broach said.
Dr. Walter Koltun is currently performing much of the experimental research at the Institute, which is focusing on patients suffering from diverticulitis, a type of colorectal disease.
Diverticulitis was formerly considered to be an illness that the elderly often incurred because of a low fiber diet, Koltun said. But he began to notice that there were patients who were getting the illness at ages as young as 30, and these patients often had a history of diverticulitis in their families.
Koltun said these two factors suggest the disease might have a genetic link, and he now has 20 patients from four different families whom he is using to determine whether there are specific genetic and biological markers that might indicate a propensity for acquiring and passing on the illness.
“A lot of us in clinical medicine and surgery…frequently think of disease as something happening to a patient — the environment causing an illness, like breaking a leg — but really most diseases are a combination of genetic predisposition combined with the external inciting event,” Koltun said.
Giving the example of a group of people being exposed to the cold “bug” but not all actually getting a cold, Koltun says that these types of situations indicate that, while environmental factors play an important role in disease, the biological component is very important as well.
Broach and Koltun both encourage any healthy Penn State students who are interested to volunteer to participate in the research by donating their DNA at the Institute to help advance the research needed to develop the practice of personalized medicine.
The concept of personalized medicine was pioneered by the Penn State College of Medicine’s first chair of the Department of Pharmacology, Dr. Elliot Vesell, who discovered in 1968 that the effectiveness of a particular blood thinner on a patient was greatly influenced by his or her genetic makeup.
“Personalized medicine, which is a style of medical practice that focuses on individualizing risks of disease as well as therapies for the diseases, requires some underlying capabilities,” said Dr. Daniel Notterman, Penn State associate vice president for health sciences research and vice dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Medicine.
These capabilities include sequencing genes in a way that is efficient in terms of both time and economics, as well as having a large pool of people for research, both of which are provided for by the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences and the Hershey Medical Center, Notterman said.
The sequencing of the entire human genome, made up of about nine million base pairs, is something that will soon be able to be performed in only a few days, and researchers at Penn State are some of the best in the world at doing that, Notterman said.
“We don’t actually treat patients, but look for genetic and biological markers to emphasize to future physicians what treatments would be optimal for those who would become ill,” Broach said.