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Doctors Hope 'Precision Medicine' Program With Veterans Could Change How We Treat Patients

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

On its face, it might seem Dr. Fred Meyers at the UC Davis School of Medicine is looking at one very specific problem.

He’s studying soldiers with complex trauma, such as a serious burn combined with a head injury. But he says the method he’s using — called precision medicine — could ultimately change the way doctors nationwide treat both military and civilian patients.

Take the example of the burned and concussed soldier. Meyers says burn protocol calls for IV fluid, but treating a head injury requires limiting fluids, which creates a dilemma for doctors.

He and his team say this might be a chance to scrap the go-to treatment and come up with something more specific, and possibly more effective. They say the answer should come from the individual patient’s file, including their DNA, their living environment and their family history.

“We’re interested in seeing whether those biomarkers, and new biomarkers, can help in these complex situations,” he said.

Precision medicine is taking off at research institutions across the country, for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. In successful cases, doctors have saved patients with tricky diagnoses by pinpointing the gene responsible and designing gene therapy treatment.

Last month, a group of California doctors and researchers sent a letter to outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown commending his support of the movement and encouraging future investment. In 2015 Brown launched the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine, which boosted projects and clinical research throughout the state. Then-president Barack Obama made a similar move the same year.

Some experts have called the impact of personalized medicine “exaggerated.” Critics argue there’s too much money being spent on sophisticated tests and procedures that often don’t result in a cure.

But Meyers said this could ultimately make America’s expensive health care system more efficient.

“If you’re more selective in your testing, in your interventions, and if outcomes are improved and fewer patients need long-term rehab, we should be able to drive the cost of care down,” he said.

For the military research, Meyers’ team will study animal models and look at the case files of soldiers who experienced complex trauma. They’ll look for correlations between different types of biomarkers and different traumas, and use what they learn to design treatments for clinical trial patients at UC Davis.

Meyers will work with a burn surgeon from Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California on the project, using a three-year grant from the Department of Defense. The David Grant Medical Center at the Travis Air Force Base and the University of Utah are also partnering on the project.

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