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Two New Divisions at UA Health Sciences Target Precision Medicine Remedies via Advanced Genetic, Genomic Research

Monday, February 6, 2017

Two renowned genetic and genomic medical investigators have been recruited to the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson to head new divisions within the UA Health Sciences that focus on research aimed at helping develop precision medicine solutions to diseases, from asthma to cancer to diabetes and beyond.

Eugene R. Bleecker, MD, and Deborah A. Meyers, PhD, will serve as professors of medicine, co-chiefs of the new Division of Genetics, Genomics and Precision Medicine within the Department of Medicine and co-directors of the new Division of Pharmacogenomics in the UA Center for Applied Genetics and Genomic Medicine.

“I’m very excited that Drs. Bleecker and Meyers have joined the University of Arizona,” said Department of Medicine Chair Monica Kraft, MD, who is also The Robert and Irene Flinn Endowed Professor of Medicine and deputy director, UAHS Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center (A2DRC). “They have been colleagues and collaborators for years and their work has been groundbreaking in helping our field better understand the genetics behind asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They have inspired my own research and countless other investigators seeking more personalized remedies to provide relief for our patients from respiratory illnesses, diabetes, prostate cancer and several other diseases.” 

Their roles at the UA will allow them to apply their approaches to many diseases that will move precision medicine to the next level, she added. Kenneth S. Ramos, MD, PhD, PharmB, interim dean, UA College of Medicine – Phoenix and UAHS associate vice president, precision health sciences, and director, UAHS Center for Applied Genetics and Genomic Medicine, agreed.

“Their leadership and contributions in the areas of pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine will be invaluable as the Center continues to advance precision medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences and Banner – University Medicine Division,” he said. “We look forward to working closely with both of them to integrate their expertise with those of other divisions within the Center and to implement innovative programs in the area of pharmacogenomics.”

In Winston-Salem, N.C., Drs. Bleecker and Meyers were professors and co-directors of Wake Forest University’s Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine. He also was Wake’s Thomas H. Davis Professor of Medicine in the Pulmonary, Critical Care, Allergy and Immunologic Diseases Section—of which he was chief from 2002-09.

They are both part of several national research networks—often since their inception—with a focus on genetic and genomic research, frequently related to respiratory diseases. These include AsthmaNet, COPDGene®, the Eve Consortium, the Severe Asthma Research Program (SARP), SPIROMICS, and the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) Program.

In their careers, they’ve been awarded grants valued at nearly $125 million, most from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. From that research, she authored more than 350 scientific manuscripts, he more than 400—often collaboratively. In all, Wake Forest investigators at their center published nearly 1,200 papers since its 2000 inception as part of a $67 million research initiative. Topics split evenly among respiratory, diabetes and cancer.

“We interact with a number of other groups, but our major focus has been on the genetics of asthma and susceptibility of asthma and COPD,” Dr. Bleecker said. “Our particular interest is whether other genetic influences interact with the environment and cause disease progression.”

Drs. Bleecker and Meyers have seen a lot of advances in better understanding the genetics behind respiratory diseases and been part of all the major U.S. studies and several international studies.

“We first used family studies with a New England Journal of Medicine paper to say a region on chromosome 5 has genes that control inflammation related to asthma susceptibility. At the time, we had more limited genetic markers. Then, we moved into the ability to do what we call GWAS, or genome-wide association studies. We published early papers on genetic susceptibility for asthma using GWAS and, now, we’re involved in the NHLBI program, TOPMed. For GWAS, we use chips with hundreds of thousands of markers, and have now moved to whole-genome sequencing.”

Both researchers are excited to collaborate with others here because of the “very good science going on at Arizona.” They’ve associated closely with a number of UA Health Sciences faculty at the American Thoracic Society, through their research and as guest speakers invited to present on their work in Tucson. This includes the Winter Lung Series Conference, hosted by the A2DRC and UA Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, and the Problems in the Biology of Complex Diseases Colloquium, coordinated by Donata Vercelli, MD, director of the Arizona Center for the Biology of Complex Diseases at the UA BIO5 Institute.

The two are enthusiastic about exploring expansion of their research with several existing and new UAHS research centers, including the UA Cancer Center; Center for Disparities in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism; Center for Innovation in Brain Science; Center for Population Science and Discovery; Arizona Institute for Clinical and Translational Science; Center for Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics, as well as the All of Us℠/Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI).

Arizona All of Us℠/PMI lead principal investigator Akinlolu O. Ojo, MD, MPH, PhD, welcomes their input. “There will be vast opportunities for rapid innovations and discoveries that directly benefit our patients in this landmark effort—the largest NIH peer-reviewed grant in state history—to enroll 1 million or more participants nationwide who will contribute their health information and biological specimens to create a rich resource for researchers to identify better ways to prevent and treat diseases, tailored to individual health needs, genetics, environment and lifestyle.”

Drs. Bleecker and Meyers also will continue to work with research partners at Wake Forest, Emory University and other institutions, where grants call for larger or specific population studies. Their ongoing research, for example, includes studies into “genetics of lung function and asthma severity in African Americans,” “immunopathogenesis associated with fungal asthma severity,” and “systems pharmacogenomics of asthma treatment.”

Joining them at the UA from Wake Forest is Xingnan Li, PhD, now an assistant professor of medicine in the UA Division of Genetics, Genomics and Precision Medicine. Dr. Li completed his undergraduate degree at Peking University, before earning a doctorate and master’s degree at Michigan State University. Having both a doctorate in genetics and a master’s degree in biostatistics makes him a critical member of the new division. He has more than 100 published papers to his credit on related research.

Click here for a longer version of this release where Drs. Bleecker and Meyers discuss their work in more detail and that provides additional information on their background.

About the UA College of Medicine – Tucson

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is advancing health and wellness through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research, and advancements in patient care in Arizona and across the United States. Founded in 1967, the College ranks among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care and is leading the way in academic medicine through its partnership with Banner – University Medicine, a new division of one of the largest nonprofit health-care systems in the country. For more information: http://medicine.arizona.edu

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: http://uahs.arizona.edu. Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn

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