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NIH awards $11.6 million grant to Vanderbilt, Miami and Meharry for new center to study precision medicine and health disparities

May. 25, 2016, 8:09 AM

by Matt Schorr

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), the University of Miami and Meharry Medical College were recently awarded a five-year, $11.6 million grant to launch a new center that will enable research using precision medicine to eradicate health disparities, specifically those among African-Americans and Latinos.

The Vanderbilt-Miami-Meharry Center of Excellence in Precision Medicine and Population Health will leverage unique institutional assets and resources to develop novel methods and catalyze approaches to advance population health.

The center will be led by principal investigators with complementary expertise: Consuelo H. Wilkins, M.D., MSCI, executive director, Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance; Nancy Cox, Ph.D., director, Vanderbilt Genetics Institute; Maria de Fatima Lima, Ph.D., dean, School of Graduate Studies and Research, Meharry Medical College; and Roy Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., chair, Department of Medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“The future is now … and this award represents unparalleled possibilities in health care delivery as it will allow us to link genetic data with contextual data to learn why different populations experience different health outcomes. Discovering the answers to these questions aligns directly with Meharry’s mission. I am confident that the research coming from this collaboration with the University of Miami and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine will ultimately help transform health care in a way that allows every individual to live life healthier,” said James E. K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D., president and chief executive officer, Meharry Medical College.

“Team science is truly the best way to advance precision medicine. We are excited about the potential for new discoveries and understandings in how diseases can be prevented, diagnosed earlier and treated with new therapies that target social and genetic drivers…all leading to better outcomes and more hope,” said Steven Altschuler, M.D., CEO of UHealth — the University of Miami Health System.

The foundation of precision medicine is that prevention and treatment strategies take individual variability into account, which has the potential to eliminate disparities. Yet, to date, when developing new ways to treat disease, investigational therapies are often insufficiently tested in minorities, even though efficacy and safety can be highly variable in certain races and/or ethnicities.

“For precision medicine to reach its full potential we must develop new ways to integrate social, cultural, environmental and biological data to accurately identify strategies to prevent and treat disease among all populations, especially those with disproportionately poor health outcomes,” said Wilkins.

The center, one of three new awards from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, will include core programs focused on building and sustaining a regional consortium and developing strategies to speed implementation, diffusion and adoption of precision medicine discoveries.

“We will also create two novel cores. One to improve access to the genetic and clinical data of minorities and another to cross-train researchers in health disparities and precision medicine techniques,” said Lima.

Three projects are funded as part of the center. In a study led by University of Miami’s Sunil Rao, Ph.D., and Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., MPH, new statistical methods will be developed to predict risk of disparities, starting with cervical cancer. Cox will examine genetic risk factors contributing to health disparities and will characterize the relative contribution of genetic risk factors for asthma and pre-term birth, two conditions with substantial disparities in health outcomes among African-Americans and Latinos. Derek Griffith, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine, Health and Society, Vanderbilt University, will lead a study of person-specific obesity treatment for African-American and Latino men.

“This grant creates exciting opportunities for our institutions to collaborate in new ways, applying the power of precision medicine to help answer important questions about diseases that are disproportionately affecting the health of minority populations. Our longstanding partnership with Meharry Medical College continues to result in advancements in knowledge that are positively impacting the health of citizens across the Southeast. I want to welcome colleagues with the University of Miami as they join with us in this new endeavor and look forward to their contributions as we seek to improve the health of the populations we serve,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of VUMC and dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Engaging African-American and Latino communities in the center will be vital to its success. According to Wilkins, community members in Nashville and Miami provided key input to help shape the center’s proposal and will continue to be involved as part of the consortium and on the Ethics Advisory Board.

“If precision medicine will be used to improve population health and lead to health equity, we must address ongoing barriers to research including issues around trust and genomic health literacy,” said Wilkins.

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