Johns Hopkins University officials said Monday that they will use a $30 million gift from a former student to build a home for a center for personalized medicine, a growing field that uses genetic information to tailor treatments for cancer and other ailments.
The gift from John C. Malone, chairman of Liberty Media Corp., is the largest ever made to the Whiting School of Engineering and will help link scientists from many fields in medical research. The center, to be housed on the Homewood campus, will draw on the expertise of scientists around the school, including biomedical and systems engineers, physicians, nurses and public health researchers, Hopkins officials said.
"This will be a broad multi-discipline effort at the university," said Nicholas P. Jones, dean of the engineering school. "We want to use an information science-based approach to medicine that can change the way we think of disease diagnosis and treatment."
The push for personalized medicine began about a decade ago with the mapping of the human genome, Jones said. That discovery allowed researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere to begin to see genetic defects that would allow for customizing treatments for individuals with the same disease. It also has started to pinpoint which people are predisposed to certain ailments in the first place.
Dr. William Nelson, director of Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center, said the effort should produce more effective therapies faster and more cheaply because the researchers will come in with a better idea of who will benefit. That should mean less treatment by trial and error, fewer side effects and better outcomes, he said.
"If one woman has breast cancer, and another woman has breast cancer, they won't necessarily respond to the same treatment," Dr. William Nelson, director of Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center. "This enterprise will try and accelerate the process of developing the different drugs that work for each, while sparing each the treatments that don't work and their side effects."
The first place the efforts should surface is in clinical trials conducted by university researchers. And once the efficacy is proven, a wider group of cancer sufferers with similar genetic defeats can be treated.
Other institutions have established centers to advance personalized medicine and Hopkins has been planning a more formal collaborative for the past year and a half, although specific parameters have not yet been worked out, Jones said.
He said, however, that engineers will be involved in early discussions with doctors and nurses about the methods that will be used for diagnosis and treatment of patients. Systems engineers, who will help map out those methods, will also be located in the new building, paid for with Malone's gift.
Public health officials, meanwhile, would use their experience in devising schemes for large populations to help show how discoveries can help the most people. And experts in business could help determine markets for the discoveries.
Work at Hopkins and at other institutions also means that some people are saved from developing diseases that they are genetically predisposed to get, said Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, an education and advocacy organization.
The personalized medicine efforts nationwide are furthest along in cancer research — the initial focus for the Hopkins center — but there are other promising areas in development, including cardiovascular disease, he said.
But while scientists understand more about how to predict, diagnose and treat disease, he said the medical therapies are still lagging. That's where a formal collaboration such the one at Hopkins will help.
"I think most people would agree that one-size-fits-all medicine isn't going to work in the future and there ought to be a change," Abrahams said. "The only way we'll get results is through greater understanding of individual variation."
At Hopkins, that's the plan. Construction on the initiative's new home will begin in 2012; it should be open in three years. Collaboration will be encouraged without a formal residence until then.
Officials expressed gratitude to Malone for his gift, the largest at the university since 2008, though not the largest overall.
Malone, who received master's and doctoral degrees from Hopkins in the 1960s, said in a statement that he was excited to help in "this exciting expansion of interdisciplinary research between the School of Engineering and so many of the other divisions of the university."
Malone, 69, is chairman of the company that distributes many cable networks, including the Discovery Channel, USA, QVC, Encore and STARZ, and also owns Sirius XM Radio and the Atlanta Braves.