Tim Donohue (right) with Jo Handelsman (left) and New York University’s Martin Blaser at the Precision Medicine Initiative launch.

On Jan. 30, CALS bacteriology professor Tim Donohue attended the launch of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative at the invitation of Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House. The goal of the initiative, which is funded to the tune of $215 million in the president’s 2016 budget proposal, is to develop medical treatments and preventive strategies that take into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyles. eCALS caught up with Donohue after the event to ask a few questions about the initiative, the launch and his role in the effort.

eCALS: What is the Precision Medicine Initiative, in a nutshell?

Donohue: This is a large inter-agency program to collect genomic and other data on a large patient cohort of one million volunteers. Current medical treatments are often based on how the average patient responds. The goal of this program is to generate sufficient data to tailor treatments to individual patients when possible. If successful, this will revolutionize methods to prevent and treat disease, help keep patients healthy and promote longevity.

eCALS: How did you get involved?

Donohue: The scientific experts who are planning this initiative recognize that the microbiology community is going to be a key player in the success of this approach. I was invited to the initiative launch by Jo Handelsman due to my role as president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), the largest microbiology professional society in the world. While a lot of leg work had already happened before I got involved, I and others in ASM have been tracking this initiative for awhile and we have been brought in on an as-need basis to educate, consult and share our expertise.

eCALS: How does microbiology fit into this initiative?

Donohue: There are more microbial cells in your body than human cells, and they have a huge influence on human health. We need to know which are the good ones that we should leave alone or promote their growth–and which ones are the bad ones to isolate and take out. We still have a lot to learn about the body’s microbial communities, and this initiative will help generate knowledge that help us bring microbes out from behind the shadows.

eCALS: What was the launch event like?

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Donohue snapped this photo of Obama speaking at the launch event.

Donohue: It was a stimulating experience, just to be in the White House for such an event. It was also reassuring to see representatives from both political parties in the audience as a sign of potential bipartisan support for the basic science research needed to promote human health. Finally, it was inspiring to see young people who are doing research in this field and to meet some people who have already benefitted from early-phase precision medicine.

Kareem Abdul Jabar was in attendance. He had a very rare form of cancer. Genetic testing revealed he was a good candidate for a brand new drug, and he took it and it worked. There was another man there who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a child and given a life expectancy of 20 years. Now he’s 27 and his disease is under control and he’s a third year medical student. These examples, which show the potential of this approach, put tingles in your spine.