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Health & Medical

Nationwide program seeks 1 million volunteers for medical research

It’s an ambitious goal: Recruit 1 million people to contribute their time and, in some cases, DNA toward a research project aimed at learning how to better treat diseases based on genetics, lifestyle and environment.

Northwestern University research assistant professor Joyce Ho says she’s up for the challenge.

Health care institutions across the country are taking part in the All of Us Research Program, and Ho is Northwestern’s lead investigator on the project. The Illinois Precision Medicine Consortium, which includes Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Chicago,
Rush University Medical Center and NorthShore University HealthSystem, has received $51 million from the National Institutes of Health to gather data and samples from 93,000 volunteers over the next 5 years.

Participants share health and lifestyle information and, in some cases, physical measurements and samples of blood and urine. Data from the program will ultimately be available to researchers, and group data will be available the public.

In this Q&A, Ho shares more details about the program.

Q: What is precision medicine?

A: Precision medicine is a way to approach medical discoveries and biomedical research where it’s not just one-size-fits-all, it’s taking into account multiple aspects of each person’s unique characteristics such as the environment that you live in, your diet and exercise, your family history, your genetic background and just your lifestyle, in general.

Q: What will be done with the information gathered through All of Us?

A: All the data that’s going to be collected will serve as a really valuable resource for anyone who wants to conduct research to try to achieve better knowledge of illnesses, how to prevent them and treatments. A lot of times (doctors) can’t actually tailor treatment to individual patients because we just don’t know enough about each person. Through the All of Us Research Program, we hope the information available will eventually lead to a way to uncover patterns and also get to know each person’s unique characteristics … so these tailored treatments and prevention can actually be delivered to patients.

Q: How many participants do you have so far?

A: We have more than 3,000 in Illinois right now.

Q: How can people get involved?

A: People can go to where they will be able to find out more about the program and create an account.

Q: How could this change medical care in the future?

A: The potentials are immense. Nowadays, for example, (with) cancer patients there are ways to know about the genetic background of the patient or the actual tumor, to be able to match those patients with treatments that are specific to them. That is the point of precision medicine and All of Us, where we know that that type of technology and approach can really be applied to not just cancer but all sorts of very important and serious public health threats.

Q: How did you first get involved in precision medicine?

A: I have been a faculty member at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern for more than 10 years and I’ve had a lot of experience managing large research programs. I am myself a person of ethnic minority background. I’m Asian, so with the experience that I have, I really see that there is a potential for a program like this to meet a lot of the health disparities that exist for many pockets of communities and people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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