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USF envisions institute to focus on personalized care for heart patients

TAMPA — The University of South Florida is already home to centers for Alzheimer's disease and diabetes research, as well as training in medical procedures using high-tech simulators.

Now the school is pushing to create a new institute specializing in personalized treatment and prevention of heart disease that is based on patients' individual genetic code.

Officials with the USF Morsani College of Medicine will appear before Hillsborough County Commissioners Thursday to seek their conceptual — and financial — support. Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the school is looking for roughly $2 million in county taxpayer seed money.

Sharpe, who is promoting the idea, said it will further boost the region's image as a burgeoning center for innovation and will serve as a powerful economic development recruiting tool.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for Tampa Bay to take the lead in this kind of research," Sharpe said.

County officials say they are still awaiting details on what precisely is being proposed and how specifically they would be asked to assist. Terms of any taxpayer subsidy — such as how many jobs USF would pledge to create in return for money — also are still being hashed out.

Medical school leaders say the proposal is part of a larger emphasis they are placing on teaching and researching personalized health care that is propelled by genetic discovery. They plan to make the institute the No. 1 priority in future requests for state financial support.

(They say current legislative plans to cut higher education spending make a request for state assistance now impractical.)

"We believe that the mission of personalized medicine is going to be the biggest transformation in health care, probably since antibiotics," said Dr. Stephen Klasko, dean of the College of Medicine.

He and other school leaders laid out a concept Friday that appears to borrow from existing research centers in Tampa.

The school would want to build a repository of blood samples from heart patients that would get genetically mapped. Researchers would then work to identify genetic markers that predict different forms of heart disease and identify what forms of treatment would work best for each patient.

By studying large groups of patients, "we can begin to screen and treat people younger and earlier in their disease to try to head off their (disease's) progression," said Dr. Les Miller, chair of cardiovascular sciences at USF.

"By virtue of having someone's DNA profile, or genetic map, we will be able to not only select what drug they are most likely to respond to, but … to have a very clear insight into the doses that are best for that individual."

That is similar to what H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute is attempting at its M2Gen collaborative with pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. In fact, USF Heart Institute anticipates housing its blood sample collection with M2Gen.

M2Gen is Moffitt's 5-year- old for-profit startup venture to develop a huge database of cancer treatments proven to work on collected tumor samples frozen in storage. The idea is based on selling database time to pharmaceutical companies and other researchers to shorten expensive and lengthy clinical trials.

M2Gen is now trying to raise money from investors to accelerate its growth. Its freezers hold only 20 percent of their design capacity of 2.5 million samples.

Attention to the future of M2Gen has heightened since Dr. Bill Dalton recently traded his $1.1 million job as Moffitt chief executive to take over as chief executive of M2Gen.

After generating about $10 million in revenues in 2011, the venture, propelled by a $90 million exclusive-rights deal with Merck, is still unprofitable. Merck in December renewed for another year, but for less money and gave up its exclusive deal. M2Gen also signed deals with two other unidentified pharmaceutical companies and a partnership to store vascular samples in a venture with Sanford-Burnham Lab and Florida Hospital, the state's largest hospital operator.

"We're going gangbusters," Dalton said. "We got Merck to re-up before their deal expired and signed up three other partners in two months."

USF also may repeat the path it used for its Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, which recently opened in downtown Tampa. The training center got its start in space at Tampa General Hospital.

Work on the Heart Institute could similarly start in pilot fashion in collaboration with partners such as the American College of Cardiology, a medical society for cardiologists, which the school is courting.

USF hopes to begin applying what it learns to patients as quickly as possible. It has focused recent faculty recruiting on people with demonstrated ability to convert research into treatment.

Across the country, economic recruiters are seeking to attract biotechnology investment in their communities to spur job growth. Within that arena, universities are latching on to applications for genomics research.

"The difference here in Tampa," said Jennifer Hall, director of cardiovascular genomics at the University of Minnesota and faculty member of the USF cardiovascular program, "is the direct line to patient treatment."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

USF envisions institute to focus on personalized care for heart patients 03/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 12:01am]
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