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Institute for Personalized Medicine established by Pitt, UPMC

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 11:52 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Jeremy M. Berg, director of the new Institute for Personalized Medicine launched by UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh, holds a model that he built of a protein that is mutated in human disease. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Drugs like Plavix, which prevents blood clots in people with coronary artery and vascular diseases, benefit millions of people.

But some people who take them find they don't work.

“About 15 percent of people who take Plavix don't activate it properly. There are lots of people who are taking it who are not benefiting from it at all,” said Jeremy Berg, a University of Pittsburgh specialist in personalized medicine.

Personalized medicine tailors treatment to individuals based on increasingly accessible genetic information. The data are used, for example, to predict a patient's likelihood of developing types of cancer, determine which therapies or drugs will work for diseases like asthma or even how to treat a particular case of influenza.

Berg, a bio-organic chemist with a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University, is the first director of the new Institute for Personalized Medicine, a joint project from Pitt and UPMC that they introduced this month.

“The goal of setting up the institute, and others like it, is to make personalized medicine real. It improves the chances of getting better therapies and treatments to the public,” Berg said.

Research being done into genetically informed treatments and therapies has been going on for years. This is the second personalized medicine institute to open in the state in the past 12 months, the other being the Hershey Institute for Personalized Medicine, operated by Penn State that opened in February.

Institutes such as these get treatments from research labs to patients, doctors and scientists said.

“It's patient-driven medicine, as opposed to mass-produced medicine,” said Dr. Naftali Kaminski, a UPMC pulmonologist and director of the Dorothy P. and Richard P. Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease at UPMC.

Patients undergo a complete genome sequence, a process that was once cost-prohibitive and is still expensive, but becoming less so with better technology.

“Many diseases look the same. But patients with asthma do not all respond to the same therapies. A genomic profile could tell a lot about how to treat people. The same is true with influenza. Not all patients with the flu need antiviral therapy, which is expensive and has side effects. So if someone has the genes for protection, we don't need to poison them with drugs,” he said.

The cost of mapping the first human genome in 1993 was $3 billion.

“Within a year, it will be about $1,000 to get a complete genome sequence,” said Berg, who has directed divisions at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and, most recently, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Kaminski's main field of research is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring or thickening of the lungs, which has no known cause. The disease is incurable, and patients diagnosed with it live an average of three years.

Though some drugs to manage the condition are in clinical trials, the only real solution is a lung transplant.

Yet, Kaminski said, “The disease behaves differently in different people.”

Kaminski and other researchers recently discovered a panel of blood proteins that predict how long patients with pulmonary fibrosis might live.

“That information helps determine the best time for a patient to have a transplant,” he said.

There are at least 30 personalized medicine institutes in the United States, including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University, the Ohio State University Medical Center and the University of Rochester.

Personalized medicine “is taking us away from one-size-fits all medicine,” said Edward Abrahams, executive director of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy organization with 250 members.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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