A new approach to medicine that emphasizes personalized treatment based on each patient’s unique physiological makeup was announced Wednesday by two Valley philanthropic organizations.
The Scottsdale-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust will commit $35 million and the Phoenix-based Flinn Foundation will kick in $10 million to create the Partnership for Personalized Medicine, which will develop blood tests and other procedures designed to identify diseases at an earlier stage and match treatments to the patient’s protein biomarkers — a developing field called proteomics.
The work has the potential to improve therapies for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and autism while reducing costs, organizers said.
The partnership will include several high profile medical research institutions including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Dr. Lee Hartwell, director of the Hutchinson center and a Nobel Prize winner for medicine in 2001, will lead the effort as chairman of the partnership’s executive committee.
Other committee members will be Dr. George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute, and Dr. Jeffery Trent, president and science director of TGen.
“Our goal is to improve health care and reduce costs,” Hartwell said. “There have been improvements in health care that have increased costs, and this gives us an opportunity to reverse that trend.”
The concept, which is still untested, figures to reduce costs by emphasizing prevention and early detection of diseases, he said. However, it runs against the grain of current reimbursement policies, which provide greater coverage for treatment than prevention, he said.
“The whole economics of molecular diagnostics is in trouble,” he said. “We don’t reimburse molecular diagnostics. ... (As a result) many diagnostic procedures are being introduced without validation. ... We’ve got to change that.”
In addition to its emphasis on diagnostics, the program heads in a new direction by focusing on proteins rather than genes as an indicator of disease. Proteins are believed to be more informative than genes in identifying medical problems, in part because they can be identified in blood tests while DNA or RNA samples must be obtained via a biopsy of the diseased tissue itself, scientists said.
Protein analysis has been limited because of the low level of proteins in the blood, but recent technology advances in the field of mass spectrometry are making it possible to identify and analyze proteins at previously undetectable levels, they said.
To conduct the research, the partnership will create the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, which will use the expertise, labs, computers and other state-of-the-art equipment at TGen and the Biodesign Institute. The group also will establish an industrial-scale proteomics production facility at TGen that will attempt to discover new proteins for use in diagnostic tests.
Also the center will distribute new molecular diagnostic procedures it develops to health organizations worldwide through demonstration projects.
Hartwell said the partners hope to persuade insurers to fund the demonstrations because of their potential for long-term savings. Also government-supported payment systems in foreign countries could contribute, he said.
Arizona patients could benefit within two years even though the program is subject to time-consuming regulatory approvals, Trent said.
“There are methods for early adoption while you’re going through the regulatory steps, if you show it’s of medical value,” he said.
Poste said statistics demonstrate the need for better personalized medicine. Of the 3.1 billion prescriptions dispensed each year in the United States, 2.1 million result in the hospitalization of the patient, and they cause 140,000 deaths, he said.
“Adverse drug reactions now constitute the sixth largest cause of death among Americans, and for the most part … that reflects your genetic uniqueness and my genetic uniqueness that affects the way we handle drugs when they enter our bodies,” he said.