Stakeholders Looking Into Growing Precision Medicine Business

Stakeholders Looking Into Growing Precision Medicine Business

Universities, researchers and insurance industry representatives took the first step Tuesday to map plans to draw next-generation precision medicine to Connecticut to boost the slow-growth economy.

Precision medicine, promoted by the National Institutes of Health following a 2015 initiative by President Barack Obama and backed by $130 million in federal spending, considers a patient's lifestyle, environment and genes when treating disease. Promoters in Connecticut say it could fit well with the state's dominant insurance industry and a growing number of bioscience companies and research efforts.

"Our goal is to look at what would be a new economic driver for Connecticut," said Joe McGee, co-chairman of the Connecticut Commission on Economic Competitiveness.

McGee, who was economic development commissioner under former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, compared efforts to build on Connecticut's health care industry to efforts 20 years ago seeking to draw financial services companies to Fairfield County, within commuting distance of Wall Street.

Health care has been identified as an area of strong potential growth in Connecticut, spurring nearly two dozen representatives of insurance companies and hospitals, bioscientists and others to meet at Community Health Center Inc. in Middletown to consider what McGee called "the next big thing in health care."

Connecticut can be a "full participant" in the federal effort, collecting and sharing data, he said. The state already has a good start because of its network of research hospitals, medical supply manufacturers and bioscience industry, he said.

The key question is how data sharing and precision medicine will drive economic growth, particularly employment.

"How do we create the jobs?" asked Matthew McCooe, chief executive officer of Connecticut Innovations, the state's venture capital fund.

Genetic counseling is one possible source of job growth. Mark Masselli, a founder of the Community Health Center, said Connecticut should capitalize on its workforce and the value of data available in the state's health industry, research universities and the bioscience field.

"We don't have land or oil, but we have intellectual capital," he said.

Connecticut has a growing medical manufacturing device industry that the state can foster with economic development efforts such as marketing and incentives to promote job growth similar to what's done for the state's large aerospace industry, McGee said.

Tom Peters, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Connecticut, said administrators at the school do not have industry or business experience, hindering efforts to promote entrepreneurs.

"They can't lead this effort," he said.

The Community Health Center will be part of a national network of health care organizations participating in the collection of data from 1 million or more volunteers whose blood and urine samples will be used for genetic sequencing. Participants also will measure activities through mobile and wearable technology.

"It will give low-income patients access to some of the best researchers in the country," said Masselli, who with Wesleyan University students and community activists founded the health center as a free clinic in 1972.

Obama's precision medicine initiative seeks 1 million or more volunteers who will provide biodata on a continuing basis, with the information shared in research studies. The intent is to quantify estimates of risk for diseases by examining environmental exposures and genetic factors, discover biological markers that indicate higher or lower risk of developing common diseases and develop solutions to health disparities.

McGee acknowledged that promoting the new industry might rely too much on optimism.

"It is a little bit of blue sky, but how do you create a major economic driver?" he asked.