UT research institute will focus on genetic variation in medicine

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Photo Credit: Lexi Acevedo | Daily Texan Staff

Next summer, a short-term UT research institute will teach scientists about the new field of precision medicine.

In May, a pop-up institute involving the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Liberal Arts and the Dell Medical School will help researchers from diverse fields explore precision medicine, where treatment is customized for individual patients. 

These researchers work with large data sets on different patients with similar problems to find the best treatment for patients with certain traits or genetic makeups.

“If we understood how these [genetic] differences come about, we might be able to tailor treatment plans and therapies to the individual that might be more effective than what we’re currently doing,” said Hans Hofmann, UT professor of integrative biology and leader of the new pop-up institute. 

Precision medicine means not just looking at the best treatment for a disease, but at the best treatment for a specific patient, said Vishwanath Iyer, UT molecular biosciences professor and institute team member.

“It’s motivated by this idea of one size doesn’t fit all,” Iyer said. “Whether you’re thinking of interventions in social science or treatments in medicine, you really have to understand each individual as an individual and not just as one person.”

Precision medicine is often oversimplified as simply decoding the genome of a patient and curing them, Hofmann said.

“It all sounds wonderful and very compelling, but the problem is there are a lot of different levels of biological organization in between,” Hofmann said. “This understanding across levels of organization is actually very difficult, and there’s not a standard way to do this.” 

Chris Webb, another team member and the associate dean for research operations at the Dell Medical School, said different disciplines, such as genetics and cell biology, focus on different levels of organization in the body. 

In addition to different levels of organization, factors such as development over time, environment and socioeconomic status can also affect health.

“There are a lot of challenges ... once you start thinking about variation,” Hofmann said. “It can become quite daunting, so we’re hoping that by bringing together experts from quite different disciplines that normally don’t talk to each other, we can make some progress.”

But collaboration between researchers from these varying levels and disciplines can sometimes be difficult because the jargon from each field can seem like a different language, Iyer said.

“We need to learn how to speak each other’s language,” he said. “That’s one of the things this pop-up institute is intended to do: to break down the barriers that traditionally have existed between fields in terms of their language and styles of working.”

Iyer said collaboration between different fields can drive progress in the study of variation and precision medicine.

“We want to bring together people working on this idea of differences in different disciplines to identify ways in which our studies might synergize and benefit from one another,” he said.

The work that will be done at the pop-up institute could have a meaningful impact on solving problems in precision medicine and helping doctors better treat patients, Webb said.

“This is something that is going to be very relevant for precision medicine,” he said. “If we do the pop-up institute right, it will mean doing precision medicine right.”