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October 1, 2004

Penn Awarded Major Grant for Collaborative Initiative to Help Understand Genes' Effects on Medications
New Interdisciplinary Field of Human Pharmacogenomic Epidemiology to be Established

(Philadelphia, PA) - The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has been awarded a major grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bring together researchers from different disciplines to study gene-drug interactions. The three-year, $595,000 award is one of 21 in the country that will support planning activities for groups of researchers to develop interdisciplinary strategies to solve significant biomedical or behavioral research problems.

The Penn project, to be headed by Stephen E Kimmel, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, will also establish a new interdisciplinary field called Human Pharmacogenomic Epidemiology (HPE). HPE will bring together the disciplines of genetics, bioinformatics, pharmacology, epidemiology, biostatistics, and bioethics. But HPE is not simply the merger of multiple disciplines, working in parallel or sequence, but rather a new archetype of research that will develop novel ways of working synergistically to address the scientific, logistical, and intellectual barriers to interdisciplinary research. Recent advances have paved the way for significant gains in understanding how genetic variability can alter drug response. Despite this promise, the nature of gene-drug interactions is complex, and progress in the field has been hampered by the lack of a genuine interdisciplinary approach.

“Biomedical research has been typically grouped into separate, departmentally based specialties, often functioning independently of each other,” explains Kimmel. “But it has become clear that progress in medicine is a dynamic, multi-faceted process. The conventional divisions within biomedical research may hamper the pace of scientific discovery and ultimately, deliverable benefits to patients. This problem is particularly relevant in our understanding of the influence that genes have on the response to medications. This award will expand the range of study into an exceedingly important biomedical problem and that also raises the prospects of improving the public’s health.”

The need for the project arises from the fact that individuals often respond differently to the same medication given for the same medical problem. While billions of prescriptions are written each year in the hopes of improving health and preventing disease in Americans, these medications do not work as hoped in everyone, and indeed sometimes result in serious side effects. Genetic variability in the response to medications has been known for decades to play a critical role in limiting the efficacy and safety of drugs. The Penn project seeks to pave the way for a complete understanding of the genetic basis for these sometimes unpredictable responses to medications, as well as the appropriate application of this information to increase the chances that medications will work better in more patients.

“It is an honor and testament to the high caliber of the physicians and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that we are among the select group of recipients of these vitally important grants,” says Dr. Arthur H. Rubenstein, Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the School of Medicine.

Based on the new Human Pharmacogenomic Epidemiology approach, the Penn project will feature a cross-departmental collaboration of experienced investigators from key disciplines, working within an enriched and accommodating academic environment, to develop fresh, distinctive, and sustainable approaches to solving the complex biomedical problem of variable drug response. The team will work to generate strategies targeting barriers to interdisciplinary research on three fronts:

  • Scientific: by producing study-design and statistical techniques and methodologies aimed at solving problems of the intricate, high-dimensional nature of genetic influences on response to medications.
  • Logistical: by developing new strategies that improve the coordination and efficiency of HPE research.
  • Intellectual: by designing innovative approaches to improve the appreciation among the disciplines of each others' scientific context, opportunities offered, and distinct methods and languages.

"With this initiative we hope to remove roadblocks to collaboration so that a true meeting of minds can take place that will broaden the scope of investigation, yield fresh and possibly unexpected insights, and create solutions to biomedical problems that have not been solved using traditional, disciplinary approaches," says NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, MD.

The NIH initiative, fronted by the National Center for Research Resources, is part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which is intended to support and transform the nation's medical research capabilities.

Kimmel is also Co-Director of Penn’s Master of Science in Clinical Epidemiology program. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University and his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine. He completed a residency at Harvard’s Brigham and Women's Hospital and a fellowship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He also holds an MS in Clinical Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he received training in the design, execution, and analysis of drug and device studies. His research focuses on cardiac pharmacoepidemiology, with a particular interest in the effects and proper use of drugs and devices for patients with coronary artery disease.

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PENN Medicine is a $2.7 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and high-quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System (created in 1993 as the nation’s first integrated academic health system).

Penn’s School of Medicine is ranked #3 in the nation for receipt of NIH research funds; and ranked #4 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical schools. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and leaders of academic medicine.

Penn Health System is comprised of: its flagship hospital, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, consistently rated one of the nation’s “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital; Presbyterian Medical Center; a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network; two multispecialty satellite facilities; and home health care and hospice.

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