Thursday, June 19, 2008
By Mike Flaherty
SAN DIEGO -- One of the nation's most unique research tools developed through the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation drew a crowd of curious scienstists and biotech company representatives Wednesday on the floor of BIO, the annual gathering of the world's biotechology industry.
Marshfield Clinic has assembled the genetic makeup of 20,000 volunteers -- most of them from central Wisconsin -- to compile one of the world's largest human genetic data banks as part of its Personalized Medicine Research Project. The information in those data banks allows scientists to study how genetics and human diseases are related -- and then better target treatments.
Are people susceptible to arthritis genetically different that those who are not, for example? Are there also genetic differences among those who are susceptible? Should they be treated with different medicines?
Catherine McCarty, director of human genetics at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, told the BIO crowd that the two-year-old project may unveil new ways to treat a host of human diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis to heart disease to diabetes.
"This is a powerful new tool that will allow researchers to find ways to help improve people's health,'' said McCarty, who, since coming to the Marshfield Clinic from Australia, has drawn more than $5 million in research grants to the clinic's Research Foundation.
Currently the Project is studying glaucoma, a common problem causing vision loss and even blindness among aging people.
The study isolated 250 people with glaucoma in the Project's database -- and found there are genetic links. Further, researchers that there are significant genetic differences among those who have glaucoma, many of whom could respond better, ironically, with a far cheaper drug.
McCarty cautioned that the glaucoma research so far is simply limited to identifying glaucoma-causing genes, not treatments.
"That (treatment) is the next step,'' she said. What's significant now, however, is that the data base is large enough that scientists can use their findings and extrapolate them to the entire population.
That means the findings Marshfield Clinic researchers achieve about about treating people with glaucoma differently will likely produce new recommendations for everyone with glaucoma.
"This will prove extremely important and have many uses,'' she said.