Wednesday, May 20, 2009
By Mike Flaherty
One of the most far-reaching innovations in medicine is unfolding in central Wisconsin where the Marshfield Clinic is entering the second phase of its nationally recognized Wisconsin Genome Initiative.
It's an initiative that is drawing a lot of interest in Atlanta this week at BIO 2009, the world's largest gathering of the international biotechnology community. This year the conference has drawn more than 12,000 scientists, vendors, company executives and investors.
"We've been involved in a lot of meetings so far. It's been very productive," said Catherine McCarty, a senior research scientist and interim director of the Center for Human Genetics at the Marshfield Clinic.
The project has enormous, far-reaching potential to improve diagnoses of diseases and determine the most cost-effective treatments for individual patients, she said, noting that the "personalized medicine project" is now a collaboration of UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed $2 million for the project to help it implement the next phase of its project -- a system to help process and sort enormous volumes of complex medical records and data. The center has also applied for an "enormous" federal grant to help speed the project along as well, McCarty said.
The Genome Initiative is based on 20,000 patient records that have been collected by the Marshfield Clinic from volunteers. By looking at the medical records of these patients and comparing them to their genetic makeup, the clinic is looking for correlations. Once fully implemented, doctors will be able to analyze patients' DNA to look for genetic predisposition to certain diseases -- and to determine more precise and cost-effective treatments.
"With our database of 20,000 people, we can research almost anything, so we're in the process of prioritizing," she said, noting that the focus will largely be on the diseases that pose the greatest risk to public health such as heart disease, cancer and glaucoma.
Among the project's discoveries already includes a gene that helps predict glaucoma -- and determines cases of glaucoma that can be treated by a "pennies-a-day" drug versus a drug that is "eight times more expensive," she says. If that sort of experience can be expanded to many other diseases, treatments can be much more effective and can help make health care more affordable, McCarty said.
The clinic has also discovered genetic correlations that can help more precisely target dosages of the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen -- and another genetic market that will help better target the use of the blood thinner warfarin.
"We'll know soon whether we've won these grants," she said. "It's a very exciting time."