President Obama Announces $215 Million Precision Medicine Initiative

Saying precision medicine — in which patients receive highly personalized treatments — offers “one of the greatest opportunities for new medical breakthroughs that we have ever seen,” President Obama recently announced the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). First mentioned in the 2015 State of the Union Address, the Initiative seeks to spur advances in precision medicine by supporting genomic research, developing a network of patient volunteers, and partnering with academia and industry.

The PMI launch was attended by Chief Executive Officer of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Steven M. Altschuler, MD, as well as 9-year-old CHOP patient Emily Whitehead, whose leukemia was successfully treated with a breakthrough form of cell therapy treatment developed at CHOP.

The PMI is the second healthcare-related initiative launched during President Obama’s second term. In April of 2013, he announced the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. By mapping the brain’s connections in detail, that Initiative — which was launched with funding from DARPA, the NIH, and the NSF — aims to help researchers accelerate the development of technologies to inform treatments for conditions like epilepsy.

For its part, the PMI will be led by four government agencies: the NIH, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the FDA, and the White House Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, and Harold Varmus, MD, director of the NCI, co-authored a New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) article detailing the Initiative. “The proposed initiative has two main components: a near-term focus on cancers and a longer-term aim to generate knowledge applicable to the whole range of health and disease,” Drs. Collins and Varmus write.

Specifically, an immediate goal of the PMI is “to significantly expand efforts in cancer genomics to create prevention and treatment successes for more cancers,” according to the NIH’s website. The NIH will also develop a “national cohort study of a million or more Americans” who by sharing genomic data and specimens will aid research into diseases’ underpinnings.

“With sufficient resources and a strong, sustained commitment of time, energy, and ingenuity from the scientific, medical, and patient communities, the full potential of precision medicine can ultimately be realized to give everyone the best chance at good health,” note Drs. Collins and Varmus in their NEJM piece.

CHOP T Cell Treatment Success Highlighted

The proposed 2016 Budget includes $215 million to support the PMI. However, the Initiative’s ultimate funding level is subject to Congress’ approval, and so far the Republican response to the Budget, which the White House delivered February 2, has been typically hostile.

“Today President Obama laid out a plan for more taxes, more spending, and more of the Washington gridlock that has failed middle-class families,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It may be Groundhog Day, but the American people can’t afford a repeat of the same old top-down policies of the past.”

But in a sign that there might be bipartisan support for the PMI, Congressman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement that the PMI “is a natural fit in the discussion about how to accelerate and improve the discovery, development, and delivery of new cures and treatments.”

Patients who have benefited from advanced, targeted forms of medicine were in attendance for President Obama’s announcement. In addition to CHOP’s Dr. Altschuler and Emily Whitehead — who traveled to Washington, DC at the White House’s invitation — several other patients were in the room, including the famous basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 2011 Abdul-Jabbar, a leukemia patient whose disease is currently in remission, received the Double Helix Medal from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for his efforts to advance biomedical research.

And shortly after the Precision Medicine Initiative was announced, Emily’s story was highlighted in a White House blog post about Americans whose lives have been changed by precision medicine.

When then 7-year-old Emily first came to CHOP, her acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) had relapsed for the second time and was resistant to chemotherapy. However, after Emily became the first child to be treated with T cells that had been engineered to multiply and fight against ALL, she experienced a dramatic recovery. More than two years later, Emily is healthy and cancer-free.

“If you didn’t know what happened to her, and you saw her now, you would have no idea what she has been through,” said Emily’s mother Kari Whitehead in the White House post.

“I am thrilled that President Obama recognizes the promise of our nation’s research efforts by making this investment,” said Dr. Altschuler. The Precision Medicine Initiative announcement “signifies his commitment to bringing this issue to the forefront of our national agenda.”

To read more about the Precision Medicine Initiative, see the NIH’s site about the project.

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