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The Power of Precision Medicine

Researchers, Soper, Godwin and Yu

The “one size fits all” approach to the treatment of cancer and other diseases is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Now clinicians and researchers may scrutinize an individual’s genes, environment and lifestyle to help identify effective therapies specifically matched to their disease.

According to Andrew Godwin, PhD, deputy director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center, the concept, called precision medicine, may fundamentally change how doctors treat patients. His 30-year scientific career has centered on aspects of precision medicine as it relates to cancer.

“Precision medicine is about understanding diseases at the molecular level, which may allow us to find better, more effective ways to treat patients,” Godwin said. “For example, why do some people have adverse reactions to a standard therapy while others have a remarkable response? Studying genetic differences between individuals and the underlying causes of their disease may help us better tailor more effective therapies.”

Gaining momentum

The pace of precision medicine has accelerated since the launch of the Human Genome Project in 1990. A 13-year-long international effort, the project determined the DNA sequence of the entire human genome, charting our genetic blueprint and providing the critical elements of precision medicine.

In 2015, President Obama announced the launch of the National Institutes of Health Precision Medicine Initiative, a $215 million investment. Most advances in precision medicine have happened in cancer, and short term, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is focused on advancing cancer-centered precision medicine opportunities. Long term, the initiative will address a variety of diseases.

In 2019, the University of Kansas Medical Center was awarded a five-year, $11.4 million NIH Phase I Centers for Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Led by Godwin, the COBRE grant hinges on supporting researchers early in their careers while bringing precision medicine to the forefront of research on campus.

“With the support of the COBRE, we aim to help early-career investigators advance their field of research by providing resources, infrastructure and mentoring to achieve independent and sustainable peer-reviewed funding. For example, an R01 grant is a huge milestone in a researchers’ career,” Godwin said.

We are just at the beginning in terms of understanding the potential to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease through precision medicine. With this grant, we can help transform the landscape of medicine across our institution. That means we have a chance to positively impact patient care in our region and beyond. Dr. Andrew Godwin

Next-gen experts

Leading the mentoring component is Alan Yu, MB, B.Chir., director of KU Medical Center’s Kidney Institute. The grant allows for five junior faculty at any one time, and they are selected via a competitive application process. The scientists represent a variety of disciplines, with a focus on physician-scientists. According to the NIH, the average age an MD-physician-scientist receives their first R01 grant is 45.

“The career path of a physician-scientist is an extraordinarily challenging one,” Yu said. “By offering intensive mentoring and tools to accelerate their progress, we will equip them to successfully compete for peer-reviewed grant funding.”

As each junior faculty becomes funded, a new researcher joins the fold.

“Our momentum will quicken with each funded researcher,” Godwin said. “As the pool of experts grows, so will their impact on how patients are diagnosed and treated.”

Another leader of the COBRE grant is biomedical engineer Steven Soper, PhD, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the departments of Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kansas. Soper and Godwin have collaborated on the development of precision medicine tools including lab-on-a-chip technology.

Soper, who has labs on both the KU Medical Center and KU-Lawrence campuses, lends his biomedical engineering expertise — a truly unique skill in which most investigators are not familiar.

“The major goal of this resource is to develop new tools that will help these new investigators reach their project milestones,” Soper explained. “The tools’ capacity to process clinical samples go well beyond conventional commercial tools typically available to researchers.”

COBRE grants can be renewed for up to three phases — representing up to approximately $34 million in National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) funding and support for numerous junior and senior investigators through annual pilot grants.

“We are just at the beginning in terms of understanding the potential to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease through precision medicine,” Godwin said. “With this grant, we can help transform the landscape of medicine across our institution. That means we have a chance to positively impact patient care in our region and beyond.”

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