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Novel George Washington University Program Enables Undergraduates to Genotype Samples

A first-of-its kind joint undergraduate program between George Washington University and Shenandoah University will allow students to collect and genotype human samples.
“I’m trying to integrate into the curriculum a heavy lab component,” Travis O’Brien, director of the pharmacogenomics program at George Washington University, said this week. “It’s the only way to learn this stuff.”
The program, in which the data will be anonymized, will use buccal swabs to genotype samples for “some CYP450 enzymes.” O’Brien said the students will then analyze the samples and discuss their results as a class.
“The other class project is to [conduct] a roundtable discussion about what it means,” O’Brien said. “Many of us will come out with variability.”
Ultimately, O’Brien said he plans to have the students collect data, which then can be published.
GW’s two-year PGx program began in 2005 [see PGx Reporter 03-31-05]. In its first year the program had seven students who will all continue to a PharmD programs after graduating this summer. The class that will graduate in 2008 has 14 students.
The students start off at Shenandoah University, where they complete the first two years of their undergraduate degree. Those who wish to specialize in PGx apply and enroll in the GW program as juniors, and are initially taught by the university’s School of Medicine faculty on basics of pharmacology, toxicology, genomics, genetics, and pharmacogenomics. As seniors, the students have PGx-related internships.
One advantage to being at GW is the school’s proximity to the US Food and Drug Administration and drug companies. Several FDA officials, including Federico Goodsaid, senior staff scientist in the genomics group of the Office of Clinical Pharmacology, are lecturers as adjunct faculty at GW. Goodsaid lectures students on genomics and markers.
FDA’s interest in teaching PGx to undergrads comes at a time the agency has admitted that knowledge of the field within its own employees needs to be improved. The agency recently announced that it will launch two new continuing medical education courses for pharmacogenomics with the goal of helping doctors and researchers understand the basic principles of genomics and genetics [see PGx Reporter 01-03-07].
According to O’Brien, several students last year had internships with a drug maker and with the FDA working on projects related to toxicogenomics under the Critical Path Initiative.
“To my knowledge students from the program were the first interns to work on the Critical Path,” O’Brien said. “What I want them to do is get a real-world experience of the science or the policy behind the science.”
Students graduating from of the program will hold a bachelor of science degree in health sciences with a focus on pharmacogenomics. For those who want to choose the PharmD path, their senior year at GW counts as their first year in pharmacy school.
Among the second batch of students who will graduate in 2008, most are focusing on getting their PhDs after they finish the program.

Pharmacists are likely to be “the interface between the laboratory test and the physician.”

However, “if they wanted to get a job right out of college, there are technician-level jobs, and one of the things I’m trying to do in my second year is open up those doors for the students,” O’Brien said.
As science and technologies advance healthcare there is a growing need for a specialized, educated workforce with working knowledge of certain aspects of personalized medicine. According to O’Brien, pharmacists are likely to be “the interface between the laboratory test and the physician.”
“When you think about who is going to have to do this,” it’s the pharmacist, he said. “Pharmacists are the ones who are going to identify drug-drug interactions …. This stuff blends into the pharmacy curriculum much better. I picture this as being an obvious transition to getting [from] bench to bedside with a lot of this” emerging science.
It’s already happening. LabCorp and pharmacy chain Duane Reade last year penned an agreement to place a LabCorp “patient service center” in 20 New York City Duane Reade pharmacies. The pharmacies will collect patient samples for nearly the full range of LabCorp diagnostics, including molecular diagnostics such as CYP450 testing [see PGx Reporter 11-01-06].
O’Brien said that the next step is to develop a graduate degree, which will likely launch in the fall of 2008.

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