New ‘Google Maps for Health’ Drives California to Precision Medicine Lead

By weaving together a hodgepodge of patient information, clinical data and scientific know-how, California officials hope to create a sort of “Google Maps for health” to drive the right therapies to the right people at the right time.

The statewide public-private program, called the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine and led by the University of California, will be launched Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown with an initial $3 million commitment from the state.

Hosted at UC San Francisco, the initiative will cross-reference privacy-protected patient data across the UC health care system, including five UC medical centers, with clinical trial data, genomic, environmental, socioeconomic and health patterns and mobile technologies, such as the Apple Watch.

In the end, the approach seeks to bring about better understanding and better treatments for disease — theoretically at a lower cost — by better targeting therapies to patients, supporters say. That compares to the traditional once-size-fits-all approach to health care that precision medicine leaders say drives up costs by misdiagnosing patients or broadly prescribing drugs that may not be effective against individually nuanced diseases.

The initiative’s first tangible projects will be two yet-to-be-selected pilot programs.

Simultaneously, the program will undertake an audit of California’s public and private “precision medicine” assets, said Dr. Atul Butte, director of UCSF’s Institute for Computational Health Sciences and director of clinical informatics for UC’s health centers, collectively known as UC Health.

“We’re building a Google Maps for health,” said Butte, who is leading the initiative.

“It’s a modest amount of money,” said Butte, who moved to UCSF from Stanford University earlier this year in part because of the initiative. “But it’s just the beginning. Small things can lead to big things in California. We can lead by example.”

The initiative comes on the heels of the federal government’s Precision Medicine Initiative, outlined in President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. That $215 million plan will include a volunteer “biobank” of medical data, genetic information and tissue samples.

Mountain View-based Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) is one of a handful of companies involved with the Obama plan.

“Everything we’re proposing is synergistic” with the Obama plan, Butte said.

But the birth of California’s initiative goes back at least two years, to Gov. Brown’s attendance at a precision medicine conference at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. That summit also attracted National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, then-commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, 23andMe Inc. CEO Anne Wojcicki and Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Despite the scientific know-how and heft within the UC system and an open invitation to companies and researchers at private institutions, such as those at Stanford and the University of Southern California, the plan has a tough challenge.

Backers of the bold state plan must sort and sift through seemingly disparate information into the right buckets. Then comes the intensive work of analyzing the data to fine-tune the discovery, development and distribution of life-altering drugs.

“The success of the California Initiative to Advance Precision Medicine depends upon finding ways to effectively collect and integrate diverse forms of data, from the very objective — genomic and molecular — to the more subjective — environmental influences and life experiences,” said Keith Yamamoto, vice president for research at UCSF.

Yamamoto was instrumental in crafting a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report that was co-written by former UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, who now leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report called for a “knowledge network” to integrate molecular data with information in environmental factors and patients’ electronic medical records.

What’s more, Brown foreshadowed the initiative in his 2014 State of the State address, saying California can pioneer precision medicine.

“This is really multiple efforts coming together,” Butte said.

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