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Personalized medicine gets shot in arm

October 20, 2007

The Virginia G. Piper Trust and the Flinn Foundation are funding a $45 million initiative to advance personalized medicine.

To meet the urgent health care need for earlier medical diagnoses, two Arizona-based philanthropic organizations have committed $45 million to develop personalized molecular diagnostics.

Under the “Partnership for Personalized Medicine,” the Virginia G. Piper Trust has committed $35 million and the Flinn Foundation has contributed $10 million to bring together a wide range of resources within Arizona to advance a global personalized medicine initiative.

World-renowned scientist Lee Hartwell has been recruited to lead this effort. Hartwell is a 2001 Nobel laureate, as well as president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Hutchinson Center, based in Seattle, is a leader in using molecular diagnostics for the early detection and clinical management of cancer and other diseases.

The cornerstone of the partnership is the creation of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics that draws upon the scientific strengths of the state’s leading bioscience entities: ASU’s Biodesign Institute and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).

“It is a tremendous opportunity for me to be a part of this new model for improving health while reducing health care costs that is being enabled by the Piper and Flinn foundations,” Hartwell says. “The collaboration between TGen, ASU, other institutions in Arizona and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center brings together enormous expertise to tackle major challenges in bringing new science and technology to disease management.”

Hartwell will serve as chair of the Center for Personalized Diagnostics executive board, which also includes George Poste, director of the Biodesign Institute, and Jeffrey Trent, president and scientific director of TGen.

“With the team of scientific and clinical research excellence we are assembling, our goal is to transform medicine from the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to one that is targeted around a patient’s unique genetic and molecular profile,” Poste says.

ASU President Michael Crow adds that this endeavor “promises to become a shining example of how multiple partners can work together to address a critical need in human health and accelerate solutions that extend beyond our own community.”

Many recent breakthroughs in medical treatment focus on treatment. The partnership seeks to develop personalized diagnostics that place a greater emphasis on prevention. The ability to diagnose and treat disease based on every person’s unique physiological makeup would enable physicians to improve health outcomes while reducing medical costs.

Unfortunately, barriers such as the expense of clinical trials and difficulty obtaining clinical samples have impeded progress in developing these diagnostics. To overcome these obstacles, the partnership will use a unique model for building partnerships between different players in the health care arena to advance technology on a statewide, national and international scale.

“This initiative is an exciting new approach to medicine with the goal of developing individualized therapies that are safer, more effective and more cost-efficient,” says Judy Mohraz, president of the Piper Trust. “The entrepreneurial spirit of Arizona allows for an integrative approach that brings together scientists, clinicians, payers and regulators who will work toward the common goal of improving health outcomes.”

Crow notes that significant investment in this area could transform the nature of medicine – and, in this regard, the Piper Trust serves as a catalyst for securing additional funding. This already has been demonstrated with the commitment by the Flinn Foundation to contribute $10 million to support essential efforts important to achieving the partnership’s goals.

“The development of new diagnostic tests hinges on the identification and validation of protein biomarkers,” says John Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Flinn Foundation. “A portion of our funding supports biomarker discovery and diagnostic development, which could ultimately lead to earlier disease detection and more precise disease management.”

The partnership unites experts in bioinformatics, proteomics, nanotechnology, imaging, genomics and health care economics. As the new molecular diagnostic tools are developed, there is expertise to shepherd these through the regulatory approvals and into widespread clinical use.

“The ‘Holy Grail’ of personalized medicine includes blood-based tests that improve diagnosis and help direct clinical care,” Trent says. “The unparalleled opportunity this partnership provides is to expand the magnitude of proteomic studies across a spectrum of key clinical questions.”

The partnership also includes the recruitment of new ASU faculty and a series of demonstration projects that will integrate partners across the health care spectrum. Members of Hartwell’s team who have experience in proteomics, informatics and clinical trial design may provide guidance through consultation and collaboration.