“You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type — that was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard? What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?”

a dna double helix fades into a human shapePresident Obama posed these questions in his 2015 State of the Union Address, highlighting current trends in medicine. Soon after his speech he announced the creation of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). This initiative was established “to enable a new era of medicine through research, technology and policies that empower patients, researchers and providers to work together toward development of individualized care.”

Precision medicine is a relatively new buzzword in the medical vernacular that describes an approach to preventing and treating disease based on the genes, environment and lifestyle unique to each person. With this targeted approach, every individual patient would have a medical management plan tailored to their illness, personal history, genetics and more. To accomplish this lofty goal, the Obama Administration called for a $215 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year and created an ambitious PMI Cohort Program.

The cohort program is a dream for many research scientists and physicians, who have already been working for years towards a future where precision medicine is the reality. The idea is to create a voluntary, “patient-powered” national research cohort of one million or more Americans, from which vast amounts of data will be collected and analyzed. The cohort will be led by the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with other public and private agencies and stakeholders. Many potential sources of data have been proposed, from genome sequencing to metabolite analysis, personal device and sensor information to whole body microbiome fingerprints, lifestyle habits to environmental exposures. To put this in perspective, the Framingham Heart Study, one of the largest and most well-known population-based health research initiatives to date, followed a mere 15,000 participants.

If this innovative cohort program becomes a reality, with the help of hundreds of thousands of Americans who are willing to contribute time and personal information to the endeavor, it would be a true treasure trove for scientists, potentially providing the massive amount of data necessary to make the practice of medicine incredibly personalized.

In an effort to be at the forefront of innovation, Johns Hopkins is also deeply committed to advancing precision medicine. The Individualized Health Initiative, or Johns Hopkins inHealth, is a signature initiative of the Johns Hopkins’ $4.5 billion Rising to the Challenge campaign. The mission of this initiative is essentially the same as that of the national PMI, although inHealth was launched at Johns Hopkins in 2011.

Research efforts funded by Johns Hopkins inHealth include programs to individualize cancer screening and autoimmune disease management, Bayesian models to individualize health care, and Oncospace, a radiation oncology database and clinical tool used to optimize radiation therapy.

Indeed, patients, physicians and scientists at Johns Hopkins are already realizing the potential of precision medicine and translating information into individually optimized treatments. Before we know it, all of health care could be akin to getting an optical prescription where not only your glasses, but every therapy you receive is custom-tailored to your unique specifications.


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