Student-Led Initiative in Precision Medicine Debuts in the School of Pharmacy

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Over a decade ago, a new health care model was conceived to transform the approach to patient care from “one-size-fits-all” to “personalized.” 

Today, this model incorporates advances in genomics and medical technology to create precise techniques for identifying risk factors and preventing disease. 

Furthermore, it allows health care providers to precisely manage and treat disease states through patient-specific, personalized therapies.  The advancement of new technologies has led to the rebirth of this personalized approach under the heading of “precision medicine.” 

At UCSF, this hot topic has not escaped the attention of its student leaders.  This summer, the School of Pharmacy actively supported the creation of two student-led initiatives relating to precision medicine.

The first initiative, led by second-year pharmacy student Dor Keyvani, is a series of lunchtime discussions that aim to familiarize students with the most current and cutting-edge research, tools, and practices in the field of precision medicine. 

Keyvani developed his interest in this field even before arriving at UCSF.  His vision for the series emerged after he learned more about pharmacogenetics in a course taught by Dr. Esteban Burchard of the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences and Medicine. 

Dr. Burchard met with Keyvani and encouraged him to think on a grand scale.  With the help of Dr. Burchard and his research associates, Keyvani recruited an all-star lineup of speakers from 23andMe, uBiome, Genentech, Genomic Health and the Gladstone Institutes to discuss topics such as pharmacogenetics and genetic ancestry, the human microbiome, classical pharmacology (11/14), genome-driven oncology (11/19) and stem cells (12/2).

Simultaneously, third-year pharmacy students Pin Xiang and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics PhD student Megan Li developed the second initiative while serving as teaching assistants for Dr. Burchard’s pharmacogenetics course.  

With the aid of Dr. Alan Wu, Department of Pathology and Department of Laboratory Medicine, Xiang and Li are coordinating a pilot study in genetic testing of first-year pharmacy students.  They aim to determine students’ attitudes and perspectives towards genetic testing and how getting genetically phenotyped for different metabolic enzymes affects student learning of pharmacogenetics. 

The development of these precision medicine initiatives was “an organic, student-led movement,” said Dr. Burchard, and is supported by the School of Pharmacy’s Dean, Dr. Joseph Guglielmo, and the faculty.  The success of the initiatives rests largely on the dedication shown by Keyvani, Xiang and Li. 

“Since I have been teaching the class for 10 years now, this is the first time that I’ve had three students that were super highly motivated to run with it,” said Dr. Burchard. “It’s one thing to have the idea, and another to have it come into play. The students get most of the credit.”

It is expected that the success of the initiatives will attract other schools within UCSF to join the movement.  The lecture series is already drawing attendees from across disciplines, noted Dr. Sam Oh, a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Burchard’s laboratory and a supporter of the initiative.

“I was waiting in line to get into the [Precision Medicine Discussion] lecture, and I turned to the person behind me and asked, ‘Which department or school are you in?’, and they replied, ‘Transplant medicine,’ ” he said.

Pharmacies will soon become the point of contact for clinical labs following recent FDA approval, which will make patient counseling on laboratory and genetic testing within the scope of practice of a PharmD. 

Companies such as Theranos, the Silicon Valley-based life sciences company that has recently partnered with Walgreens pharmacies, are making diagnostic testing accessible and convenient for patients by providing a full blood workup from just a few drops of blood.  Pharmacies are bringing precision medicine to the patients, allowing patients to play an active role in their health care.

The first Precision Medicine Discussion lecture was hosted by UCSF alumnus Dr. Bethann Hromatka of 23andMe, who spoke about the company’s genetic testing service and research platform. 

She also discussed the power of genetic information and how different tools can be used to help individuals learn about their genetic makeup, including what health risks they are predisposed to and how they will respond to certain medications. 

The second lecture was hosted by uBiome co-founder Jessica Richman, who described how her start-up crowd-sourcing company sequences the genomes of microbial populations from different sites of individuals’ bodies.  

By sampling from the nose, mouth, skin, gut and genitals, the company hopes to establish direct correlations between an individual’s microbiome and his or her health.  Both companies look to empower individuals to play an active role in their health through gaining more knowledge about themselves.

Upcoming discussions this fall include:

  • Dr. Joseph Ware of Genentech, November 14;
  • Dr. Audrey Goddard of Genomic Health, November 19;
  • Dr. Bruce Conklin of the Gladstone Institutes, December 2.

All the discussions will be held from noon-1 p.m. in Health Sciences West (HSW) 303.  In future, this initiative hopes to spread to other disciplines and include student projects and community outreach.  To join the movement or learn more about the Initiatives, email Dor Keyvani, Pin Xiang or Dr. Esteban Burchard.