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A USF newcomer is a leading researcher in using genes to guide medical treatment.

Imagine being able to use a person's unique genetic code to find the right treatment for heart failure, asthma or even the dreaded common cold.

That's the focus of Dr. Stephen Liggett, one of the newest additions to the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine.

Liggett, 57, began work this month as director of the USF Health Personalized Medicine Institute. He is a national leader in the emerging field and has attracted millions in research dollars from the National Institutes of Health.

One of his first orders of business will be to collaborate with Dr. Leslie Miller, head of the USF Health Heart Institute, which this spring received $8.9 million in state and county funding to begin developing genomics-based personalized approaches to cardiovascular care.

Liggett comes to USF from the University of Maryland, where he was a professor of medicine and physiology and director of its cardiopulmonary genomics program.

We caught up with Liggett during his first week on the job:

What is personalized medicine?

It's the use of information obtained from an individual's genetic code, or genome, to tailor their medical care. There are three areas where genomic information is particularly useful:

- The prediction of whether a person is at risk for developing a disease.

- The ability to predict the course, or degree of severity, of a disease in patients.

- And the ability to predict which medications will provide the best response.

Using a person's genetic code to tailor their medication eliminates the trial-and-error approach, which is the way medicine is practiced now.

Can you talk about some of your work in this field?

In heart failure, only about 50 percent of patients respond to conventional therapy, which is the use of a class of drug called beta blockers. At the University of Maryland, we examined the genomes of several thousand individuals with heart failure to understand who was responding to a particular treatment and who was not. And we found a very common genetic variation.

Now, for the first time, we have a genetic test that will help guide us to the best treatment for individual patients.

(Liggett's Maryland team, along with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also mapped out the genome of 100 different strains of the common cold virus. Their work, published in the journal Science, may lead to an effective treatment for the common cold.)

What is realistic to expect from genetic testing now?

There are many genomic tests that are available now at USF Health or that the Personalized Medicine Institute will bring online shortly. These include those for breast cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and to guide therapy, such as for leukemia and blood clots. And there are a lot more in the experimental and late-stage development phases that are very promising.

I've seen ads from companies that claim they use genetic testing to help you lose weight. Is this possible?

As with any technology related to health, unscrupulous parties will tag on to the latest thing and overpromise. There is no genetic test that can guide the treatment of obesity with vitamins or supplements, but some Internet sites make that claim.

Richard Martin can be reached at or (813) 226-3322.