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Indiana University Precision Health Initiative Putting Informatics Piece Into Place

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CHICAGO (GenomeWeb) – The Indiana University Precision Health Initiative, a multi-million-dollar effort to develop the university's expertise in individualized precision medicine, is set to begin research operations later this year having secured Kun Huang as its director of data sciences and informatics.

"The informatics research cluster is key to the success of our Precision Health Initiative, laying the foundation for a suite of technologies and strategies that will support and enhance medical research and define IU's approach to precision health," Anantha Shekhar, executive associate dean for research affairs at IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis, said in a statement at the time of Huang's hiring in May.

Huang, currently the associate dean for genome informatics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, will serve as the first leader of the IU Precision Health Initiative as of mid-July. Announced a year ago, the initiative was the first program to receive funding under the university's $300 million Grand Challenges Program, which aims to promote research to benefit rural and urban communities across Indiana.

Precision Health will receive as much as $40 million from the Grand Challenges Program to develop IU's expertise in individualized precision medicine, the university said. The initiative will specifically incorporate five research clusters across IU, which will focus on genomic medicine; cell, gene, and immune therapy; chemical biology and biotherapeutics; data and informatics; and psychosocial, behavioral, and ethics research.

Faculty from IU School of Medicine, IU Bloomington, and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) are leading the program, with help from IU Health and Regenstrief Institute, a university-affiliated health IT research organization. Founding corporate partners include Eli Lilly, Roche Diagnostics, Cook Regentec, and Deloitte.

Since the initial announcement of the Precision Health Initiative in June 2016, participation has grown. In December, Indiana technology mogul Don Brown donated $30 million to establish the Brown Center for Immunotherapy at IU School of Medicine. That center will, in part, support precision health.

One of Brown's companies, Indianapolis-based startup LifeOmic, is providing gene sequencing and related informatics to IU Health and to the Precision Health Initiative. Shekhar said to expect news in the next week or two on additional partners.

Indiana Precision Health now is focused on building teams to develop genomics-based treatments for multiple myeloma and breast cancer. Eventually, the initiative also will seek treatments and preventive measures for at least one pediatric disease, one chronic condition, and one neurodegenerative disease, and possibly more; the original plan had been to concentrate on one cancer.

For now, the focus has turned to standing up the initial teams and getting started on the real work. "The research should start this fall," Shekhar said.

To date, the program has hired a dozen new faculty members. "We are in the process of hiring 12 more," Shekhar said.

The initiative also is bringing together expertise from other parts of the IU system, such as the informatics department at the main campus in Bloomington. Also participating are faculty in data security, computer science, and the IU Health IT department, said Peter Embi, president and CEO of the Regenstrief Institute, who oversees the informatics side of IU Precision Health.

Regenstrief is playing a central role in the Precision Health Initiative. Among Huang's faculty appointments is as a Regenstrief senior investigator.

Regenstrief will be architecting a common data repository and connecting to various IT systems to satisfy any data needs the program might have. "We're looking at that holistically," Embi said.

IU Health already has vast IT infrastructure in health IT, biobanking, and genomics processing.

"We are trying to operationalize precision health activities via informatics," said Embi, who, like Huang, came to Indiana from Ohio State.

For the Precision Health Initiative, data scientists there will be dealing with the genome, the phenome, and the exposome — social and behavioral determinants of health. Only the phenome has traditionally resided in electronic health records, Embi noted.

"The work is significant," Embi said. "We have the raw materials, but we're talking about fundamentally changing how we practice medicine."

Indeed, Regenstrief and IU Health do have the raw materials, as well as decades of experience. Regenstrief, under the leadership of early health informatics giant Clement McDonald, developed an in-house EHR in the 1970s, initially to support clinical trials. That system remained in place until IU switched to eClinical Works for ambulatory EHRs in 2011 and Cerner for inpatient care shortly thereafter.

Once the technology is set and research is underway, the plan is to "actually use this in the real world and develop best practices," Embi said.

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