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As President Obama proposes national investment in precision medicine research, Massey leads the way in Virginia

Catherine Dumur, Ph.D., operates next generation DNA sequencing equipment in the VCU Molecular Diagnostics laboratory
Catherine Dumur, Ph.D., operates next generation DNA sequencing equipment in the VCU Division of Molecular Diagnostics

President Obama recently proposed a major Precision Medicine Initiative that allocates $215 million in the federal 2016 budget for precision medicine research. Designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to lead and shape the nation’s fight against cancer, Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center has already taken steps to bring the benefits of precision medicine to Virginia. Of the President’s $215 million proposed investment, $70 million will be provided to the NCI to scale up efforts to identify the genomic drivers in cancer and to translate this information into more effective strategies to prevent and treat cancer.

“As we learn more about the genetic makeup of cancers, it becomes clear that we must change the way we classify and treat these diseases,” says Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., director of Massey Cancer Center. “It will take a significant effort along with national and international research collaborations to discover the many genetic drivers of cancer and develop more effective and less toxic treatments. The President’s proposed investment is a strong step toward transforming cancer care, and I believe Massey can make important contributions to that effort.”

Last year, Massey became the first cancer care provider in Virginia to perform next generation DNA sequencing for precision cancer treatment. With this capability, Massey can sequence the DNA of a patient’s tumor and then match them with existing or experimental therapies that target the specific molecule or gene driving their disease. This approach is currently available at Massey for the treatment of melanoma, colon cancer and lung cancer because these diseases have the most readily available FDA-approved targeted therapies. However, plans are underway to expand these services to patients with a variety of cancers and to introduce more comprehensive sequencing technologies to enhance patient care and support research.

“Targeted therapies have shown dramatic results in some cancers for which there have been very few new treatments in the last decade, such as lung cancer and melanoma,” says Charles Geyer, M.D., associate director for clinical research at Massey. “Our ultimate hope is to one day sequence the DNA and RNA of every patient’s tumor in order to better understand the genomic drivers of their disease and provide a more personalized approach to therapy as well as aide in our research efforts to discover new therapies and molecular targets.”

The ability to sequence every patient’s tumor requires major investments not only in sequencing technology, but also in the bioinformatics infrastructure needed to store and analyze vast amounts of data. Massey research members David A. Fenstermacher, Ph.D., chief research information officer, and Charles Clevenger, M.D., Ph.D., chair of pathology, already have efforts underfoot in this regard.

Under their leadership, VCU is establishing an Institute for Precision Medicine to support translational research through the continued implementation of advanced genomic sequencing and the development of an “integrated information ecosystem.” This bioinformatics network will lay the foundation to enable researchers throughout VCU to draw upon information gained through next-generation sequencing for a variety of research purposes. An advanced computing cluster environment will be critical to supporting data modeling and large metadata analysis essential to processing next generation sequencing data. Furthermore, an enterprise data warehouse to serve as the primary repository for clinical, billing and research data will be needed to facilitate all levels of research.

“While we have a long way to go, I am proud of the progress we are making and I am excited about the possibilities ahead of us,” says Ginder. “We are leading the precision medicine effort in Virginia, and, if the President’s Initiative is approved, I believe we will be able to play a significant role on the national level as well.”

Written by: John Wallace

Posted on: February 6, 2015

Category: Center news & funding