In case you missed it, President Obama used his State of the Union speech Tuesday night to call for a national “precision medicine” initiative. But, as often happens in these Halloween candy bags of Presidential wish lists, the details were scant. Here’s the entirety of what he said about it:
I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine – one that delivers the right treatment at the right time. In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable. Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes – and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.
If you’re expecting a new National Institute of Precision Medicine to emerge and join the other 27 institutes that make up the U.S. National Institutes of Health, you might end up disappointed.
If you’re expecting a lot more orders of genetic sequencing machines, join the club. Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) shares rose 7 percent Tuesday as rumors of the President’s upcoming tidbit began to circulate before the stock market closed.
So what areas of work might receive NIH funding through this new push? On his blog NIH director Francis Collins points to a few NIH-funded projects that he helpfully tags with “precision medicine”:
—Better and broader identification of tumor surface proteins using minimally invasive needles.
—Smarter interpretation of genetic variants.
—Reclassification of tumors not by tissue of origin but by genetic fingerprint.
The most recent NIH budget proposal also holds interesting clues. The document presents four key themes for the NIH in 2015. Theme No. 2 is…. (drum roll, please)…. Precision medicine. “Precision medicine refers to the tailoring of treatments to the individual characteristics of each patient…NIH undertakes the challenges of precision medicine through myriad strategies,” it reads.
One of the few specific technologies it then highlights is “tissues on a chip”—which means putting microcosms of a human organ into high-throughput systems that help in drug testing. (Hitting a human cell with a drug gives limited information; hitting a bunch of heart cells behaving like heart tissue would be more useful.)
Based on the ink the budget devotes to tissues on a chip, they’re a high funding priority. There’s already a program that cuts across 15 NIH centers, and it’s led by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which, at three years old, is the NIH’s youngest.
At least one NIH-funded private company, Organovo (NYSE: ONVO), made headlines last year with 3-D printed human liver tissue samples that detected a safety problem in a drug potentially headed for human studies. Other startups in the field have emerged as well. A Boston startup called Emulate was spun out of the Wyss Institute this past summer; it’s making a lung-on-a-chip, and has designs for an integrated body-on-a-chip. Tara Biosystems, spun out of New York’s Columbia University in October, is developing a stem-cell based approach designed to simulate how a human heart would react to a drug. Some others include Seattle startup Nortis, a University of Washington spinout; and North Brunswick, NJ-based Hurel Corp., which uses an organ-on-a-chip method to replicate liver tissue.
Genetically diverse tissues could be a key to unlock precision therapies. But until we hear more details—and see the grants go out the door—we won’t know if tissue-on-a-chip research, or any kind of research, will get a boost beyond the relatively small amounts the administration can move around before a new budget is approved. (Which it did to kickstart its national Alzheimer’s plan in 2011.)
For now, though, a national “Precision Medicine Initiative” sounds a lot more presidential than a national “Tissue on a Chip Initiative.”
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