The National Institutes of Health is ponying up $31 million over five years to launch a new research program to explore the potential for precision medicine to help reduce health disparities.

NIH’s effort includes the development of new tools and analytic methods for integrating patient data with information about contextual factors at the community and population levels that influence health outcomes, such as economic, social and political conditions.

Regina James, director of clinical and health services research at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), says new tools and analytics, and data integration are one of five priority areas that so-called Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers (TCCs) will focus on as part of their work.

“We’re hoping that the TCCs will bring to bear their knowledge and expertise to begin to integrate the social contextual factors that go beyond biologic and clinical markers to really make it relevant for populations that are underserved,” says James.

At the same time, she adds that another priority research area for NIMHD’s precision medicine initiative is the development of pharmacogenomic tools to identify critical biomarkers for disease progression and drug responses in diverse populations.

TCC cooperative agreement awards, each providing as much as $1.5 million in direct costs annually over five years (plus applicable indirect costs), have been made to three academic institutions: Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

The TCCs will focus on at least one priority research area to address one or more documented health disparities for populations, which include Blacks/African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

Each academic center will support two to three multidisciplinary research projects examining complementary aspects of precision medicine, focusing on interactions between biological, behavioral and contextual predictors of disease vulnerability, resilience and response to therapies in patients from disadvantaged communities.

Unfortunately, racial-ethnic minorities as well as socio-economically disadvantaged and rural populations in the U.S. continue to experience a disproportionate share of many diseases and adverse health conditions. However, precision medicine holds great promise for reducing these health disparities through better targeted prevention and treatment strategies, according to James.

“We want to make sure that precision medicine can actually benefit all Americans,” she says. “For those Americans who might be disproportionately affected by health issues or have poor health outcomes, we want to ensure that the science is also addressing those populations.”

While James contends that NIMHD’s precision medicine program shares the vision of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, she emphasizes that its effort is not connected to the PMI longitudinal research cohort of 1 million or more U.S. volunteers that NIH is currently rolling out.

“These are two separate initiatives,” says James. “The money that Congress allocated for the PMI cohort is different. This is funding from the Institute itself to specifically focus on precision medicine research on health disparities.”

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