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Patrick Springer, Published January 07 2014

Sanford announces $125 million genetic medicine initiative

FARGO – Sanford Health is embarking on a major initiative to integrate genetic information with primary care enabled by a $125 million gift from namesake benefactor T. Denny Sanford.

The new effort, announced Tuesday, is billed by Sanford as the first of its kind in the nation to “marry” genetic screening with internal medicine doctors throughout its clinic system.

The so-called Sanford Imagenetics program will begin offering patients the opportunity for precise genetic testing and genetic counseling later this year.

“This is the frontier of medicine,” Sanford’s top executive, Kelby Krabbenhoft, said in making the announcement. “This is what’s going to change everything for everybody.”

Sanford’s gift will allow the health system to hire and train teams of specialists in a collaboration that also will involve academic centers in the Sanford service area for research, and training physicians and other providers.

Each of Sanford’s four regional hubs – Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo, Bismarck, and Bemidji, Minn. – will have specialists who will work closely with internal medicine doctors.

Sanford already has seven genetic counselors, including two in Fargo, and five medical geneticists.

Through telemedicine and targeted outreach efforts, the program will be available to patients throughout Sanford’s sprawling service area that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana.

A portion of Sanford’s gift will be used for a new genetic medicine center at its campus near downtown Sioux Falls, with construction to begin in spring 2015.

“We will have the same resources,” said Dr. Julie Blehm, a senior internal medicine doctor at the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo. “We’re going to have the same opportunities.”

Each of Sanford’s major hubs will have “dedicated facilities” to house internal medicine, genetic counselors, medical geneticists, research, education and laboratory services. Details still are being worked out.

The genetic screening will be targeted at certain patients, based on family history and other indications, she said.

“It will be an appropriate screening for each patient,” Blehm said. “We are not talking about blanket screening of everyone’s genes. That would not be helpful.”

Genetic screening already has been in wide use for certain diseases, such as breast cancer and some pediatric diseases and disorders.

But analyzing a patient’s DNA to tailor medication and treatment plans still is novel in many areas, and making it a mainstay of primary care is a unique undertaking, Sanford representatives said.

“It’s really an innovative way of delivering primary care,” said Dr. H. Eugene Hoyme, president of Sanford Research. Genetic counselors will work “shoulder to shoulder” with primary care physicians. “This is a very unique approach.”

Using a patient’s genetic information will enable doctors to evaluate the dosage and effectiveness of medications, to improve results and minimize side effects. The FDA has listed more than 100 drugs that metabolize differently in patients.

“This really leads to what we call precision medicine,” said Hoyme, who is a medical geneticist.

Research will be carried out to evaluate patient outcomes to determine the clinical effectiveness of the program, he said.

Recruiting is underway for a genetic specialist with a national reputation to head the program, and a genetic bioethicist also will be part of the initiative.

Sanford’s gift also will help to establish training programs, including genetics in the internal medicine residency program at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota.

There also will be opportunities for medical students and residents interested in genomic medicine through scholarships, residencies and fellowships.

Similarly, training programs will be established in fields such as genetic counselors, genomic nurses and the field of “bioinformation” at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

“This is going to have a huge impact in our part of the country,” Krabbenhoft said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522