Avoiding health problems

Inova institute conducting research that could change patient care

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

The practice of medicine has always been about trying to fix what is broken: Doctors ream out clogged arteries, excise suspicious lumps and prescribe insulin shots to treat diabetes. But Inova Health System, one of the dominant care providers in Fairfax County, believes that the study of the human genome is going to lead to care that is more personalized and preventive, and, as a result, it is “making a significant pivot in strategic direction,” says CEO J. Knox Singleton.

“In the traditional orientation [of medicine], you get sick and then see a doctor who tries to restore you to health,” Singleton says. “In the new orientation, you interact with the physician, who looks at your profile and helps you manage your life and avoid a lot of problems in the future.”

Inova’s Translational Medicine Institute at Inova Fairfax Hospital was established in 2010 to do the advanced genomic research that Inova hopes to apply to patient care one day. The institute’s CEO is Dr. John Niederhuber, a surgeon and researcher who previously headed the National Cancer Institute. Niederhuber says he moved to Inova because he “wanted to work on the power of technology to generate large genomic databases and to develop analysis and integration [of the data] with patient health records to make care as intelligent as we can.”  In Last year, Inova promised $150 million in funding over five years.

The institute’s first project has been to look for clues that might explain premature births. About 25 researchers have been analyzing the genomes of 250 pre-term babies, 250 full-term babies and their parents. The mapping of 1,500 genomes, at a cost of about $2,500 for each data set, is expected to be completed by summer’s end. Upcoming projects will include a study of families in which Type 2 diabetes runs through several generations. Niederhuber says he knows of no other organization in Northern Virginia that is doing genetic research on this scale.

Gerald L. Gordon, CEO and president of the Fairfax Economic Development Authority, believes that such bioscience and its commercial spinoffs will be important to the county’s future. He says Fairfax is well positioned to attract more facilities such as the Inova Translational Medicine Institute because of its strong IT base and extensive educational support system, and he is eager for them to come. Not only will bioscience add to the diversity of the county’s economy, he finds it exciting. “This is world-changing stuff,” he says, “stuff that is actually happening now.” 

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