Among the capabilities that Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health brought to South Jersey when it merged in 2015 with AtlantiCare, one is especially distinctive.
Geisinger got an early start on building a research database of the genetic makeup of people and now has a nation-leading program in predictive medicine — finding gene variations that are implicated in illness and using them to develop individualized treatments.
The health system began its effort in 2014, a year before the United States announced the National Institutes of Health would launch the similar All of Us Research Program.
Geisinger’s MyCode Community Health Initiative already has 150,000 participants (with more than 10,000 through AtlantiCare), well on its way to reaching its goal of decoding the genomes of 250,000 people. The federal All of Us effort is expected to begin gathering participants’ DNA next spring.
Geisinger’s program currently looks for 76 gene variations associated with 27 addressable disorders. When these are found — so far in about 3.5 percent of participants — primary-care physicians are notified so they can inform the participants and determine an appropriate response.
In a MyCode newsletter a year ago, Geisinger said the program had found such genetic variations in 148 participants who then received the results through their physicians.
Eighty had the best-known of genetic mutations, the hereditary genes that increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers — 22 with the BRCA1 and 58 with the BRCA2 genes. A gene mutation increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes was found in 29 participants; 16 had a gene implicated in early colon, uterine and other cancers; and as an example of several rarer genetic conditions found, two participants had a gene increasing the risk of thyroid cancer.
Health researchers believe precision medicine will find many more causes of disease and pave the way for novel treatments, eventually allowing personalized medicine based on each individual’s genetic blueprint. Its promise of effectiveness and potential for lucrative breakthroughs in medicine has prompted something of a race among nations to gather the genetic data and start the analysis and research.
America’s All of Us program in 2015 set a goal of collecting the DNA of at least 1 million people by 2022 and since then has been setting up the secure data system needed to ensure participant privacy and the ability to monitor such additional factors as participants’ lifestyles and habits.
The following year China announced its own massively funded and expedited precision medicine effort. With a spending commitment of more than $9 billion, a more narrowly focused program and much less concern for participant access and privacy, the Chinese program quickly began gathering genomes and expects to hit 1 million two years ahead of the U.S. effort.
All of Us is in beta testing and expects to start accepting adult participants in spring 2018, either directly or through participating health care organizations.
Getting the samples is only the start. As of Aug. 1, for example, Geisinger had analyzed the DNA of 60 percent of its participants.
The National Institutes of Health effort looks robust and, with enthusiastic participation of Americans, should be a world leader in this rapidly emerging and highly promising field of genetic-based medicine.
Meanwhile, through Geisinger and AtlantiCare, South Jersey residents can support and benefit from the current state of the precision medicine art.