Sutter Health, UPMC team up on precision medicine to improve multiple sclerosis treatments

Sutter Health is teaming up with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and biomedical informatics and data management company DNAnexus on precision medicine research to develop more personalized treatments for multiple sclerosis.

As part of the collaborative study, researchers at Sutter Health will collect clinical data, including electronic health record data, from patients with MS, a debilitating disease that affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. The Genome Center at UPMC will generate genomic data from study participants’ samples, and these data will be processed and linked on the DNAnexus platform.

Sutter Health researchers, clinicians and other collaborators will use the platform to assess patients’ clinical and genomic features that correlate with MS subtypes, disability progression, staging, symptoms, MRI changes and differential response to disease-modifying therapies (DMTs), the organizations said. 

“Collaborating with DNAnexus allows access to cutting-edge bioinformatics tools to better understand our clinically meaningful ‘big data,’" said Gregory Tranah, director of the Center for Precision Medicine at Sutter Health, in a statement. "This is an important step to advance precision medicine efforts across Sutter and, ultimately, to improve treatments for people with MS in our community and the millions of people affected with the disease worldwide."

RELATED: Geisinger Health plans to make DNA sequencing 'routine' part of care

Scientists at the Sutter Health Center for Precision Medicine will input de-identified clinical-genomic data sets from more than 3,000 patients into the DNAnexus platform, enabling rapid analysis, visualization and collaboration while maintaining patient confidentiality, Sutter Health officials said.

The work to build these data sets will begin in May when researchers at Sutter plan to enroll more than 500 MS patients in the first phase of the study to collect EHR data, patient-reported outcomes, imaging data and blood samples in addition to whole exome sequencing performed by UPMC.

DNAnexus bioinformaticians will process the whole exome sequencing data through analysis pipelines and link the resulting genetic data with extensive clinical data on its platform.

MS is a potentially disabling immunologic disease that affects more than 450,000 people in the U.S., where approximately 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

Despite new research, the specific immunologic cause remains unknown, and the disease has no cure. Most people who develop MS manage a relapsing-remitting course of the illness with disease-modifying therapies to slow disease progression.

As precision medicine has advanced, more health systems are finding ways to incorporate DNA sequencing into patient care. Last May, Geisinger Health announced plans to make DNA sequencing a “routine” part of screening for patient diseases. The initiative began with a 1,000-patient pilot program in July to include DNA screening as a part of a patient's routine health exam to see whether they have any variations of genes linked to certain cancers or cardiovascular disease. Geisinger plans to expand the program throughout facilities across Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

RELATED: NIH: All of Us precision medicine project finally ready for prime time

Boston Children’s Hospital announced plans back in August to sequences the DNA of 3,000 patients with epilepsy or inflammatory bowel disease and their family members to expand the health system’s genomics database. The genetic data will be linked to clinical data from EHRs for research efforts as well as to inform patients’ diagnosis and treatments, the health system said.

Another health system, NorthShore University HealthSystem, is working with genetic testing firm Color to offer genome sequencing to 10,000 of its primary care patients. 

The DNA10K initiative is an expansion of a pilot between NorthShore and Color that led to 1,000 sign-ups for genetic tests. NorthShore hopes that genomic screenings could lead to more personalized care and flag risks for improved disease prevention.