BACKING GENOMIC MEDICINE: President Obama talks yesterday about wanting to invest $215 million to expand research for cancer treatment toward an approach that tailors treatment to each individual’s genetic makeup.

President Obama’s 
$215 million plan to expand research for cancer treatments to fit each individual’s genetic makeup could mark a major shift in modern medicine, according to local geneticists.

“I think there may be a tipping point soon when people realize genomic medicine is valuable, and this may be part of it,” said George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. “This seems to be part of a grass-roots groundswell that will lead to everyone wanting to have access to their genomic data.”

The effort, which Obama called the “precision medicine initiative,” would study the genes of about a million volunteers to figure out how to personalize treatments for patients instead of using the same approach for each condition.

“Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals,” Obama said yesterday at the White House as he announced the initiative. “You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type. That was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard?”

The initiative will be in the budget Obama sends to Congress on Monday.

The president said the effort would provide the National Cancer Institute funds to identify genetic factors that cause cancer to help develop sophisticated new treatments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would also receive money to evaluate next-generation genetic tests.

Dr. Robert Green, a medical geneticist and physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said the effort is “something that the field has yearned for for many years.”

“It’ll be a wonderful accelerator of progress,” he said.

He added that while there is some skepticism about whether the field is solid enough now to invest in, “this is exactly what is needed to take us to the point where we can start proving the worth of genomic medicine.”

Local biotech executives, including from Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Foundation Medicine, were at the White House event.

“Discovering and developing precision medicine requires time and teamwork,” Vertex said in a statement. “This new initiative is an important first step in that process.”

Church, who founded Harvard’s Personal Genome Project — a database of information from several thousand people — said the researchers should have “no shortage” of people willing to have their genomes sequenced.

“We have 10,000 or so,” said Church. “It could easily scale if all the infrastructure is in there.”

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