UW News

September 30, 2010

UW researchers seek to improve access to personalized drug therapy for underserved populations

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

The UW has joined a nationwide network of scientists through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how genes affect individual response to medicines. Ken Thummel, chair and professor of pharmaceutics, and Wylie Burke, chair and professor of bioethics and humanities, and colleagues, recently learned they have received a five-year, $10 million grant from the NIH’s Pharmacogenomics Research Network (PGRN) to create a Northwest-Alaska center to study pharmacogenomics in rural and underserved populations.

The grant is one of 14 nationwide — totaling $161.3 million — that the NIH awarded to expand this research network. In the 10 years since the PGRN’s formation, researchers have identified gene variants linked to people’s responses to medicines that treat cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. The aim of pharmacogenomics research is to identify how genes can be used to individualize drug therapies to make drugs safer and more effective for each person.

Thummel and Burke’s PGRN program is the first to address the needs of underserved populations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. It is a partnership with researchers at University of Alaska – Fairbanks, University of Montana, Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, Group Health Research Institute, Puget Sound Blood Center and with communities and rural healthcare providers in Anchorage and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, Northwestern Montana, and parts of rural Washington and Idaho.

“We hope this grant will reduce barriers that limit the inclusion of American Indian and Alaska Native people in pharmacogenomic research,” said Thummel. “We’d like these traditionally underserved communities, and their healthcare providers, to have increased opportunities to evaluate the merits of this testing and introduce advances into clinical practice when warranted.”

The center’s research will focus initially on genetic variables influencing drug therapy with the blood thinner warfarin, the anti-estrogen tamoxifen, and the immunosuppressive drug tacrolimus.

“These drugs are promising examples of pharmacogenomic test cases that could lead to improved safety and efficacy in dosing levels,” said Erica Woodahl, lead investigator at the University of Montana and UW affiliate assistant professor of pharmaceutics. The researchers hope to determine if the gene variation that has affected drug metabolism and responses among other study populations is also prevalent among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Project members also hope to assess possible gene-environment interactions. For example, many Yup’ik Eskimos still live a largely subsistence lifestyle (living off food they grow or food that is on their land). Their resulting diet is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, while low in leafy green vegetables — both factors that might contribute to a change in blood clotting and an altered need for warfarin. The scientists hope to take advantage of recently-developed dietary biomarkers, Yup’ik food frequency questionnaires and cell-based models, to analyze this subject.

Burke said that she and colleagues have sought to launch this type of research center for years. “We wanted to ensure that pharmacogenomic discoveries contributing to improvements in drug efficacy and safety benefit all people living in our region,” she said.

At the UW, the multidisciplinary research group involved in the project includes faculty from the departments of bioethics and humanities, epidemiology, family medicine, genome sciences, law, medicinal chemistry, nephrology and pharmacy.