Other’s Opinion: Mayo wins a key building block for future of medicine

Published 10:29 am Thursday, June 9, 2016

Minnesota’s world-class medical centers and pioneering health reforms have long made it a health care leader nationally and internationally. A recent announcement from the National Institutes of Health ensures that the state will stay at medicine’s leading edge far into the future — a noteworthy development not only from a medical standpoint but from an economic perspective.

About a week ago, the federally funded NIH announced a five-year, $142 million grant to Mayo Clinic to establish the “world’s largest research-cohort biobank for the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program.” This difficult-to-understand appellation likely limited celebration in the state over this welcome news. But here’s a helpful translation from Mayo’s Dr. Stephen Thibodeau, who will oversee the biobank:

This, he said during an interview, is a “big deal.”

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It is indeed. “Precision medicine” is in its infancy, but it holds such vast promise that President Obama has made accelerating its development one of his administration’s marquee issues. And Dr. Eric Topol, a well-known author and TED Talks speaker on genomic and wireless advances in medicine, calls it “the most ambitious and far-reaching medical research program in American history.”

The “precision” generally refers to medicine’s increasing ability to leverage an individual’s genomic information to better diagnose a disease or disease risk, or to tailor treatment to improve medication’s effectiveness. In cancer treatment, for example, recommended therapies may be based on the genetic alterations that are thought to be driving an individual’s cancer — rather than treating all tumors the same way for all patients. That could help physicians prescribe more effective chemotherapy regimens, as well as the timing and use of radiation or surgery.

Another precision medicine facet: individualizing medical devices, such as through 3-D printing, to tailor them to a patient’s body.

The biobank located at Mayo facilities is a major building block for precision medicine’s future, which is why it’s exciting to have it in Minnesota. The biobank will “support the collection, storage and distribution for research use of biological samples known as biospecimens” from 1 million or more Americans who volunteer, according to the NIH.

Laboratory analysis of blood and urine, as well as medical history or even “real time physiology” gathered from cellphones, will contribute to doctors’ understanding of individual diseases. The biobank’s secure storage will provide the infrastructure for ongoing research — necessary to develop and prove the efficacy of precision therapies.

“This range of information at the scale of 1 million people will be an unprecedented resource for researchers working to understand all the factors that influence health and disease,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement.

Mayo already has a 35,000-square-foot, highly automated biobank facility in Rochester. Another 30,000 square feet will be added, with an additional 30 technologists hired. The best of U.S. medical centers competed to run the facility. Its location here burnishes Minnesota’s health care reputation and positions it well for the future.

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