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NIH Personalized Medicine Initative

The NIH will begin an effort to bring what has been called personalized medicine closer to reality in our health care system. The health organization has been charged with  starting enrollments  in 2016, hoping to reach a goal of million or more volunteers in three or four years.

“We have an incredible opportunity to advance research and make new medical breakthroughs through precision medicine, which tailors disease prevention and treatment to individuals based on genetics, environment and lifestyle,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in an NIH statement.

The initiative is part of the Precision Medicine Initiative, which President Obama introduced in January 2015. He allocated $215 million for the program in his 2016 budget, $130 million of which would go to the NIH of its part in the initiative.

The Precision Medicine Initiative is an effort to bring about what is called personalized, or precision, medicine to the U.S. health system. The FDA website describes personalized medicine as “tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics, needs, and preferences of a patient during all stages of care, including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up.”

According to the NIH website, the study is being conducted to:

  • develop quantitative estimates of risk for a range of diseases by integrating environmental exposures, genetic factors and gene-environment interactions;
  • identify the causes of individual variation in response to commonly used therapeutics (commonly referred to as pharmacogenomics);
  • discover biological markers that signal increased or decreased risk of developing common diseases;
  • use mobile health (mHealth) technologies to correlate activity, physiological measures and environmental exposures with health outcomes;
  • develop new disease classifications and relationships;
  • empower study participants with data and information to improve their own health; and
  • create a platform to enable trials of targeted therapies.

While the initiative is admirable in its goals to improve medical care to individuals, one has to consider how easily it will be to get one million volunteers for a study of this kind. There is a history of distrust, which is not always unfounded, between government medical research and the citizenry. One look no further than the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments of 1932 to 1972 in which the U.S. government conducted experiments with rural black men with the sexually transmitted disease. Despite having the ability to treat and cure the men, treatment was withheld to track the natural course of the disease.

Steps must be taken to educate the public of the potential benefits of the study, especially in traditionally exploited and undeserved communities.  Without the necessary diversity, the Precision Medicine Initiative  will merely continue the sorts of problems with genereicized medicine and health care our system currently faces.

UPDATE: Science & Enterprise creator and editor Alan Kotok  has a March  story about a push to involve more minorities in medical research and clinical trials.

Berkeley Scientists Create 3-D Invisibility Cloak

Xiang Zhang, director of UC Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, led a team of Berkeley and DOE  scientists that made an ultrathin “skin cloak.” The team used an irregular 3-D object the size of just a few biological cells to demonstrate the technique. When the 80-nm skin cloak, composed of blocks of gold nanoantennas, was activated it prevented lights waves from being reflected back, therefore making the 3-D object optically invisible.

Making 3D Objects Disappear

Now It has a Name: De-extinction

During the last few years, I’ve been hearing talk about reviving extinct animal species. Not a fantasy about resurrecting dinosaurs for kids to see in an amusement park. (Full disclosure: If that were real, I’d probably go bankrupt trying to be able to afford a trip to such a place.)

Not Michael Crichton or Steven Spielberg. But serious people.

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Credit: MacArthur Foundation

People like Beth Shapiro, a 2009 MacArthur Fellow who heads up a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that looks at the pressures that lead animal populations to speciation and extinction. She’s also the author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.

Hendrik Poinar
Hendrik Poinar. Credit: Photo courtesy of McMaster University

And people like Hendrik Poinar, the principal investigator at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre in Toronto and a professor of physical anthropology at McMaster University. His research involves finding new ways to extract DNA, RNA and protein sequences, and then and use that genetic information to look at evolution, phylogeny, selection and biogeography.

In the last few months, the topic of bringing back extinct animals has garnered enough attention for a TED conference and a National Geographic spread.

I’m not saying that I deserve royalties or that I even originated the idea but I remember being in eighth grade when a classmate lamented how extinct animals are gone forever.  It’s nothing I had thought about before that, but I replied: “Not necessarily.”

Dolly’s remains at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Credit: Colin and Sarah Northway

At the time, our understanding of genetic manipulation was rudimentary. Dolly — the first successful mammal to be cloned — was not born until eight years after I had that conversation.

And in 2003 there was the first attempt to clone an extinct mammal — a Pyrenean  ibex, also called a  bucardo. Extracted nuclei of the last known specimen were injected into goat eggs. Only seven of the 57 goats became pregnant. Only one of those six goats delivered, but the bucardo that was born died shortly after birth due to malformed lungs.

Also in 2003, Poinar sequenced genomic sequences taken from the waste, known as corpolites, of the Shasta sloth. The work showed ancient DNA can be retrieved at higher temperatures. It had been thought genetic material could only extracted from specimens like that of mammoths frozen in permafrost.

But is bringing back extinct animals a good thing? “Should it be done” is asked just as much as “Can it be done?” Whether you agree with the ethical repercussions concerning bringing back extinct animals, that the science will soon be viable is exciting.