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$43 million NIH grant puts University of Arizona at research forefront
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$43 million NIH grant puts University of Arizona at research forefront

The National Institutes of Health is giving the University of Arizona more than $40 million to help identify new ways to treat and prevent disease.

UA officials say the grant is the largest peer-reviewed National Institutes of Health grant that’s been awarded in Arizona history.

“This is huge for Arizona. Only four academic medical centers across the country were chosen,” said Elizabeth Calhoun, one of the grant’s principal investigators and executive director of the Center for Population Science and Discovery at the UA’s Arizona Health Sciences Center.

“Arizona will now have the ability to partake in the next generation of science in a way that they have never had an ability to do,” she said.

The $43.3 million award over five years is part of the Precision Medicine Initiative that President Obama introduced in his 2015 State of the Union Address. The White House describes the initiative as “a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.”

“I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” Obama said in his address last year.

The initiative calls for finding a million or more Americans to volunteer to participate in research. The UA will be part of a team of research institutions building that national research cohort, NIH officials announced Wednesday.

“Precision medicine says one person’s diabetes is not the same as another person’s and we are going to know what is the best thing to keep you healthy,” Calhoun said. “Arizona will be on the forefront of that, which is an amazing thing.

“We’re going to be at the forefront of helping move the needle on improving health outcomes and prolonging life and providing preventive services and ultimately eliminating health disparities.”

In addition to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the NIH announced four health provider organizations in the team so far: Columbia University Health Sciences, New York City; Northwestern University, Chicago; the University of Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh; and the UA.

Calhoun specializes in minority and health disparities research, with a special focus on breast cancer disparities. Before joining the UA, Calhoun was a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she established and directed the Center of Excellence in Eliminating Health Disparities and co-directed the Center for Population Health and Health Disparities.

The other local principal investigator is Dr. Akinlolu O. Ojo, who is the associate vice president for clinical research and global health initiatives at the UA’s Health Sciences Center.

More institutions may be added as the project moves forward, federal officials say.

“This range of information at the scale of 1 million people from all walks of life will be an unprecedented resource for researchers working to understand all of the factors that influence health and disease,” NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said in a prepared statement.

“Over time, data provided by participants will help us answer important health questions, such as why some people with elevated genetic and environmental risk factors for disease still manage to maintain good health, and how people suffering from a chronic illness can maintain the highest possible quality of life.

“The more we understand about individual differences, the better able we will be to effectively prevent and treat illness.”

The awardees have sub-awards with organizations that extend the geographic reach of the network, according to the NIH. The UA’s sub-awardee is Banner Health in Phoenix, which has an affiliation with the UA and, since a merger last year, has owned Tucson’s two academic medical centers: Banner University Medical Center-Tucson and Banner University Medical Center-South.

According to a White House description of the cohort program, participants will have the opportunity to contribute data including medical records, profiles of their genes, chemical makeup, microorganisms in and on the body, environmental and lifestyle data, patient-generated information and personal device and sensor data.

“The cohort will be broadly accessible to qualified researchers and will have the potential to inspire scientists from multiple disciplines to join the effort and apply their creative thinking to generate new insights,” the White House says.

UA officials say the local program will be a significant contributor to the diversity of enrolled participants.

“The inclusion of American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic/Latino participants will provide greater insights to disease prevention and treatment, making these advances available to traditionally underserved populations, regardless of race, ethnicity or geography,” a statement from the UA says.

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe on Wednesday, Obama further described the initiative:

“The powerful and exciting field of precision medicine goes a step further and asks: What if we could just as easily match a cancer cure to a patient’s unique genetic code? Instead of trying a one-size-fits-all treatment, what if medical experts could tailor one specifically for everyone’s body?” he wrote.

“By bringing together doctors and data like never before, precision medicine aims to deliver the right treatments in the right dosage at the right time — every time.”

Obama designated $215 million in the 2016 fiscal year to support the initiative, including $130 million allocated to NIH to build the national, large-scale research participant cohort.

Another $70 million was allocated to the National Cancer Institute to lead efforts in cancer genomics. The remaining $15 million was allocated to the Food and Drug Administration ($10 million) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology ($5 million).

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email

On Twitter: @stephanieinnes

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