Geisinger Health in Danville, Pa., and New York biotech firm Regeneron Pharmaceuticals are partnering to hunt for new breakthroughs in personalized medicine.

 

In the last decade, scientists have gotten pretty good at scanning individual genetic information and detecting DNA variations. They've been less successful translating that knowledge into "precision" medicine — a tailored fix for a particular health problem.

That's the big promise of personalized medicine. Personalized medicine is a reality today, but only on a small scale and only for a small number of health conditions.

Geisinger, headquartered in the northeast part of  Pennsylvania, hopes to recruit 100,000 patients to volunteer blood samples. The Regeneron team will scan each sample to read the genetic material.

Regeneron Chief Science Officer George Yancopoulos said his company sought out the venture with Geisinger because the Danville health system has excellent electronic medical records and a patient population with very little turnover.

"They probably have one of the most unique and best collections of both patients and medical records who are are willing to participate and volunteer for this type of study," Yancopoulos said.

Not every DNA variant corresponds with a medical abnormality or the promise of a treatment.

Michael Christman is CEO of The Coriell Institute for Medical Research, based in Camden, and a leader in genomic research.

Christman said the Geisinger-Regeneron partnership is exciting because the hospital system already has a storehouse of medical information on the patients who will contribute their DNA.

"Discovery-based studies like this have been going on for quite a while," Christman said. "But their data set is particularly rich on the clinical side."

"This is an example of the power of observational data," he said. "There's not enough money out there to do clinical trials on every naturally occurring variant to see if it's associated with a disease."

Christman says the Geisinger health system captures that kind of information day-in and day-out in the everyday management of patients.

"Now they just have to marry it with the genomic information," he said.

There are private, for-profit companies that read your genome for a fee and provide some information on your predispositions for this disease or that condition. But Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer said the Geisinger partnership is not designed for individual patients — or an immediate return.

"We're not going to sell a drug for a decade or two decades that would come out of this," Schleifer said. "This is long term."