The vast majority of healthcare research grants are awarded by a distinguished panel of experts at a public or private funding source. But this year, the Biomedical Research Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston is giving its staff, patients, and the rest of the world the opportunity to vote for their favorite idea for a research project in personalized medicine. The winner of the online vote for the BRIght Futures Prize will receive a $100,000 grant to pursue their project. Three finalists were chosen by a panel from hundreds of faculty applicants at BWH, but now they are each vying for the most votes from colleagues, family, and the online community.
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Two rheumatologists made it to the finals with their research proposals. One of them, Robert Plenge, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and director of Genetics and Genomics in the Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy at BWH’s Department of Medicine, hopes to combine electronic medical record (EMR) data with fresh blood samples and new gene-sequencing technology to better understand a patient’s response to certain medications. Using rheumatoid arthritis as a jumping-off point, Dr. Plenge wants to discover new applications for current RA drugs and use the data to eventually develop new drugs.
“There’s general consensus that we desperately need these molecular signatures to predict response to treatment,” he explains, “and we desperately need a better understanding of rheumatologic diseases so that we can develop new drugs.” Dr. Plenge cites positive feedback about his research from patients, clinicians, and pharmaceutical companies.
The other competing rheumatologist, Elizabeth Karlson, MD, associate professor of medicine at HMS and senior physician at the BWH Department of Medicine’s Division of Rheumatology, Immunology and Allergy, along with her research partner, Philip De Jager, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at HMS and associate neurologist in BWH’s Department of Neurology, will focus on multiple sclerosis (MS) and other diseases whose symptoms can relapse or flare up. Using EMR data on over 5,000 MS patients, they aim to predict a patient’s response to a given treatment based on genetics and medical history in the hope of reducing symptom flare-ups.
“I think that our highly innovative project will leverage vast amounts of information in the electronic medical record to understand genetic predictors of treatment response in autoimmune diseases,” Dr. Karlson says. “Ultimately this project will enable physicians to match an MS patient’s genetic profile with tailored therapies to maximize effectiveness.”
The third competing research project, submitted by Robert C. Green, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at HMS and geneticist in the BWH Department of Medicine’s Division of Genetics, aims to make genomic sequencing of newborn babies more commonplace so doctors may be able to predict life-long risks for certain genetic diseases.
All of the researchers have worked hard to get the word out about their proposals and the competition, including through faculty meetings, message boards, and social media. The deadline to vote is November 1, and the winner of the BRIght Futures Prize will be announced November 15 at BWH Research Day. For more information about all of the projects and to vote for your favorite, visit http://brighamandwomens.org/research/BFF/default.aspx.
Michael O’Neal is a writer based in New Jersey.