White House science adviser Jo Handelsman, Arielle Levin Becker / CTMirror.org
White House science adviser Jo Handelsman,
White House science adviser Jo Handelsman, Arielle Levin Becker / CTMirror.org

Farmington – President Obama is pushing to devote millions of dollars and significant emphasis to a field of research known as precision medicine, and a top White House science advisor said Friday that Connecticut — and the research institute lured here with significant state funds — are leaders in the field.

“There are very few states that have made significant investments of anywhere near the magnitude that Connecticut has,” Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told an audience at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

Jackson’s new facility is one of the centerpieces of the state’s investment in bioscience. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration courted the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory to build its new institute on the UConn Health Center campus with $291 million in state funding.

The institute also happens to focus on exactly the type of science the president is trying to promote, noted Handelsman, whose career before the White House included teaching biology at Yale.

“I see Jackson as one of the leading facilities for studying precision medicine because of the breadth of the science and the proximity to the medical institution and just the fabulous environment that we have in Connecticut for doing molecular biology research and science,” she said.

Precision medicine aims to improve treatment or prevention by identifying differences in people’s susceptibility to disease or how their bodies respond to it. The idea is to bring greater specificity – and efficacy – to medical treatment that still largely involves one-size-fits-all approaches that don’t work for everyone.

Jackson Lab officials often talk about “personalized medicine,” but some in science prefer the term “precision medicine” to avoid the misimpression that the concept involves creating drugs for a specific person.

Obama announced the precision-medicine initiative in his state of the union address, calling the field “one of the greatest opportunities for new medical breakthroughs that we have ever seen.”

“Since that’s our central mission here, we’re wildly excited about it,” Mike Hyde, Jackson’s vice president for external affairs and strategic partnerships, said of the president’s initiative.

Obama’s budget proposal included $215 million for the initiative, which would center on using precision strategies in cancer research; building a group of 1 million people who volunteer to make their medical records, gene profiles, and other health data available for research; and ensuring that the regulatory system adapts to the needs of the field.

The concept of fitting treatments to individual characteristics of a person or the person’s condition isn’t new; prescription eyeglasses do that, Handelsman noted. But researchers say new technology offers the potential to dramatically expand the ability to make advances, such as tailoring treatments to the type of tumor a person has or to his or her genetic makeup.

In the past decade, the cost of sequencing a human genome – decoding the billions of DNA bases that make up the blueprint for each person – has dropped from $22 million to a few thousand dollars, Handelsman said, and it can now be done in less than a day. Computing power has increased substantially, as have electronic methods for collecting patient health data.

But, Handelsman said, collecting large amounts of patient data also raises security challenges: If people are depositing their health data into a common database, what security can be offered them?

“Given today’s challenges with security, how strong can those promises be?” she said.

The Jackson Laboratory at the University of Connecticut Health Cent4er campus in Farmington.
The Jackson Laboratory at the University of Connecticut Health Cent4er campus in Farmington. ctmirror.org file photo

According to the White House, those issues will be addressed through a process that includes soliciting input from patient groups, bioethicists and privacy and civil liberties groups.

The specifics of the president’s initiative are still being developed, Hyde noted. And funding must get through Congress.

Funding for the National Institutes of Health has been flat for years. But on Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure, the 21st Century Cures Act, aimed at increasing medical research funding and making changes to the drug development process. The bipartisan bill also includes precision medicine components.

Dr. Edison Liu, Jackson’s chief executive, called the House’s action “a breath of fresh air.”

As for the president’s proposal, Liu said the importance comes more from what it stands for than the funding.

“This is a pittance,” Liu said. “But in this current political climate, I’m just grateful that it’s brought to the fore. I’m just really grateful that the president’s used a bully pulpit to say this is important.”

This story has been updated. An earlier version listed Mike Hyde’s title incorrectly.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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