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Do I Look Healthy in These Genes?

By Amaani Lyle DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, February 26, 2016 — Medical practitioners, patients, researchers, data analysts, and the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs convened at the White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit yesterday to highlight innovation and technology strides in preventive and enhanced care for veterans and service members.

President Barack Obama hosted the event and said that, since his January 2015 launch of PMI, the administration has made significant collaborative progress advancing a new era of medicine that delivers customized, proactive treatment to veterans and service members.

“One of the promises of precision medicine is not just giving researchers or medical practitioners tools to help cure people, it is also empowering individuals to monitor and take a more active role in their own health,” Obama said. “What we’re now seeing is the possibility of us identifying diseases, targeting them, individualizing treatments for a particular patient and operating with the kind of precision that promises to reduce costs, provide much better care and make our entire health care system much more effective.”

Obama called the PMI era an “incredibly exciting” time for medicine, particularly in biological sciences, with many successes stemming from the human genome mapping project, which was completed in 2003.

“With the advance of computers, big data, we are now seeing a rapid acceleration in making that process cheaper,” Obama said. “It is spurring on a whole new set of understandings about how diseases operate, how the human body and cells operate.”

Pooled Data Accelerates Discoveries

In addition to prevention, he said the key is to develop electronic medical record databases and pool that data for researchers, practitioners and scientists to accelerate the cure discovery process.

According to Obama, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has long been gathering genomic data on service members, will be able to better leverage big data to connect with universities and streamline research endeavors.

“My hope is that this becomes the foundation, the architecture whereby, 10 years from now, we can look back and say that we have revolutionized medicine in areas like cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or some of the diseases that cause so much pain and suffering for so many families all across the country.”

The president noted “huge interest” from the public and private sector, non-profits, and more than 40 organizations that have joined PMI to develop a new set of initiatives.

“There’s no better place to do it than the United States of America, where innovation and [research and development] has been the hallmark of driving not only our economy but the improvements that we’ve seen in life expectancy and the quality of life for people all around the world.”

PMI ‘Revolutionizing’ Medical Research

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson emphasized that PMI has now already positively impacted the landscape for veteran health care.

“This is revolutionizing the way we’re going to do business and be able to affect treatment, cures and the populations that we serve,” he said.

Often soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines returning from deployments may be affected in different ways based on their genetic make-up, Woodson explained.

“In terms of things like Gulf War Syndrome, exposure to burn pits and all of these issues we’ve been grappling with, [PMI] turns our research in a new direction to find cures for these problems,” he said. “So, not only are we talking about the everyday diseases that will affect the general population and [service members] as they get older, but the specialized issues we deal with as a result of deployments that may have a genetic basis will have new avenues for research and for potential cures.”

PMI, Woodson asserted, will help enhance health care and move beyond the issues associated with aggregated computer data and data sharing abilities to bring a swifter pace of finding answers to complex disease problems.

Woodson said the president “hit the nail on the head” in terms of the financial impact of the initiative.

“If we do this right, if we share data, if we get effective treatment sooner, we’ll reduce the overall cost because we won’t be wasting money on treatments that don’t work,” Woodson echoed. “So there’s a business case to be made for approaching research in this way.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, second from left, speaks during a panel discussion for the White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit in Washington, D.C., Feb. 25, 2016. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Panel Discussion Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, second from left, speaks during a panel discussion for the White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit in Washington, D.C., Feb. 25, 2016. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, second from left, speaks during a panel discussion for the White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit in Washington, D.C., Feb. 25, 2016. DoD photo by EJ Hersom Panel Discussion
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, second from left, speaks during a panel discussion for the White House Precision Medicine Initiative Summit in Washington, D.C., Feb. 25, 2016. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

VA Secretary Robert McDonald said his department is working in earnest to remove structural or institutional barriers. He pointed to initiatives such as the “My VA Program,” which promotes veterans to think of the VA as their own, customized health care system, he said. “Rather than looking at every issue from the bureaucracy to the veteran, we now look at everything from the veteran back to the bureaucracy.”

McDonald noted that the VA has recently trained its employees on a “human-centered design” technique, with the ultimate goal of becoming the leading government organization for customer service.