UChicago and Argonne join Precision Medicine Initiative with microbiome research

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative, a far-reaching research effort to develop medical treatments tailored for an individual’s unique genetic makeup, environment and lifestyle. Instead of relying on one-size-fits-all solutions designed to help the largest number of statistically average people, such treatments could leverage advances in genetic testing, molecular engineering and big data analysis to target diseases that are often unique to each patient.

On Feb. 25, the White House held the Precision Medicine Initiative Summit, marking the anniversary of Obama’s announcement. The event featured National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and a roundtable discussion with the President reflecting on the administration’s progress in the first year of the initiative.

The White House also announced dozens of new research projects and partnerships coordinated by the NIH and the Office of Science Technology Policy. One of those projects is a collaboration led by Prof. Jack Gilbert, group leader for Microbial Ecology at Argonne National Laboratory, to study whether the environment children grow up in, their lifestyle and their microbiome play a role in their susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder. The project, a partnership with the Minority Coalition for Precision Medicine, Illumina and The BioCollective, is based on preliminary evidence that PTSD is linked to early-life environmental exposures related to the establishment of the gut microbiome, and will focus on urban minorities.

Gilbert was in attendance at the White House summit and met relatives of Henrietta Lacks, one of the unwitting pioneers of the era of precision medicine. Lacks died from cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took samples of her tumor and used them to create the first “immortal” cell line for research. Now known as HeLa cells, they could be kept alive and reproduced in perpetuity, allowing scientists to conduct research on everything from cancer to vaccines to genetic cloning.