Precision Medicine

Precision medicine and the Nashville connection


July 20, 2016

Precision medicine is making headlines as a hopeful new strategy for healthcare. What is it? And how can people get involved?


Simply put, “precision medicine” refers to healthcare tailored to you as an individual.  This approach is already starting to make a difference in some areas, including cancer care. Now, precision medicine is making headlines because of an exciting new initiative from the National Institutes of Health.

In a recent TEDxNashville talk, Jeff Balser, M.D., outlined the vision of precision medicine. Balser is CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Vanderbilt will play an important role in the NIH initiative.

More than a decade ago, scientists sequenced the human genome. This mapped out all of the genes that define how the human body works in both health and illness. Now, we are ready to take healthcare and health to the next level, Balser says.

“We’re each unique,” Balser said. “Everyone needs something a little bit different. We want to move away from cookie cutter approaches. We want precise treatments that work based on who you are, at the genetic level.”

Take drug therapy for diseases, for example. Half the time, the first drug prescribed for you has no effect. This occurs even though it is the best treatment “on average” based on research, Balser said.  The reason lies in our genes. Genetic differences may impact how a drug works. At best, this wastes time and money till you get to the right treatment. At worst, it can cause real harm.

“Every day in this country,” Balser said, “400 people die in hospitals — the equivalent of a jet crashing every day — because of ‘adverse drug events;’ that is, too much effect, not enough effect or no effect at all.”

In the meantime, ineffective drug therapy has huge implications for healthcare costs. The U.S. spends about $3 trillion each year on healthcare. As much as a third of that is waste, Balser said. “Imagine what we could do with a trillion dollars!”


What is the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort?

The Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort is a bold research project to change how we improve health and treat disease. It will take advantage of trends and advances in science: genomics (the study of the entire set of genes in an organism or cell), tools for managing and analyzing huge amounts of information while protecting privacy, and health information technology.

It will create a “research cohort” of more than 1 million study volunteers. These participants will  contribute their health information to improve health and accelerate new and more precise ways to prevent and treat disease.

This isn’t a new area of science. We have seen progress. By launching an initiative of this size and scope, researchers are hopeful progress can be made much more quickly in understanding disease, treating it and preventing it.

Who can participate?

Anyone in the United States can take part. Enrollment is expected to begin later in 2016, directly through a website or through enrollment centers.

What will be expected of volunteers?

Volunteers will provide data from their electronic health records and health questionnaires, undergo a baseline health exam and provide blood and urine samples. They may also be asked to provide information about lifestyle and environment.

Is there a regional connection to the initiative?

The NIH’s Precision Medicine Cohort Initiative recently announced key centers involved in the study of 1 million or more individuals. Vanderbilt will receive $71.6 million over 5 years to launch and run the initiative’s Data and Research Center. It is the largest grant Vanderbilt has ever received.

This award recognizes Vanderbilt’s leadership in personalized medicine. It also positions Nashville and Tennessee for leadership and future growth in this new era of medicine. “We anticipate more people will move to the area to take part in this work, and that this grant will be an economic stimulus for the region,” Vanderbilt CEO Balser said.

Where can I learn more about the Precision Medicine Initiative?

You can keep up with developments and sign up for email updates at the NIH’s Precision Medicine website and this White House’s website.


Precision Medicine

Learn more

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is honored to be a leader in precision medicine. Learn more about this work to revolutionize healthcare in the Southeast and across the country.