UAB launches three initiatives to stimulate personalized medicine care, research

Research in personalized medicine, health informatics and genomic medicine spans disciplines and will impact the treatment of many diseases.

bruce korf 2Bruce Korf  Three new initiatives in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine are paving the way for significant growth and acceleration of personalized medicine in Alabama, the region and beyond.

On Friday, June 13, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Personalized Medicine Institute, the Institute for Informatics and the UAB-HudsonAlpha Center for Genomic Medicine. All three programs will be housed in the School of Medicine, pulling together scientists and physicians from a variety of disciplines to bear on a multitude of diseases and disorders.

“This is the future of medicine, and UAB wants to be on the leading edge,” said Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., senior vice president for Medicine and dean of the School of Medicine at UAB. “UAB is one of the largest and most productive academic medical centers in the country, and the work accomplished through these initiatives will be transformative for Alabama and the nation. UAB will lead in these three areas.”

Genomic Medicine

In the UAB-HudsonAlpha Center for Genomic Medicine, faculty from UAB and HudsonAlpha will work together, on each institution’s campus, to create a platform for using human genome data and applying it to patient care. The  Center, co-directed by Bruce Korf, M.D., chair of the UAB Department of Genetics, and Rick Myers, Ph.D., president and science director of HudsonAlpha, combines UAB’s expertise in clinical genetics with HudsonAlpha’s concentration in genome research. Read more about the Center for Genomic Medicine.

Personalized Medicine

The Personalized Medicine Institute, or PMI, directed by Nita Limdi, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Neurology, will enhance the delivery of personalized medicine by using a patient’s own genetic makeup along with his or her clinical characteristics. This will allow more specific selection and dosing of medications, Limdi says.

Two main initiatives will drive the PMI: fueling discovery through research and improving patient care.

“This is the future of medicine, and UAB wants to be on the leading edge. UAB is one of the largest and most productive academic medical centers in the country, and the work accomplished through these initiatives will be transformative for Alabama and the nation. UAB will lead in these three areas.”

To fuel the research initiative, the PMI will create and manage a “bio bank,” a cache of DNA samples that will pay dividends as a resource for future research. “The BioBank will help speed progress toward personalized medical care and contribute to a better understanding of how genetic factors, lifestyle, behavior and environment can interact to affect a person’s health,” Limdi said. “Moreover, it will provide UAB researchers a tangible advantage when competing for grant funding, especially in areas where UAB serves unique populations.”

UAB’s continued success improving the health of minorities gives the School of Medicine, and Alabama, an advantage in research, Limdi says. For example, kidney transplant rates nationally are disproportionately low for African-Americans. At UAB, one of the busiest kidney transplant centers in the country, more than half of all kidney transplants in the past 10 years were in African-Americans.

“Most research centers don’t have this wealth of data about minority populations,” Limdi said. “This puts UAB at a competitive advantage to receive research grants, which will, in turn, improve the health of African-Americans and other minorities.”

“The PMI will enhance the management of patients in large populations, create a research framework that will allow us to ask questions regarding racial and ethnic disparities, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurosciences and other areas, and expand our translational capacity for genomic discovery,” Limdi said. “This program will continually differentiate us from our local and regional peers and make us a national player in the development of new treatment therapies based on our understanding of the human genome.”

The patient care initiative will begin by identifying gene-drug and gene-disease targets for which genomics holds the potential to improve outcomes for patients.

rick myersRick Myers“Again, the population we serve allows us to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions in a racially diverse population,” Limdi said.

The School of Medicine will dedicated funds to the PMI to allow UAB to retain faculty and recruit new physicians and scientists, and to build an administrative infrastructure to facilitate more federal and private research grants. Educating physicians, trainees and the broader biomedical community, including bioethicists, is also an important component of the PMI to build partnerships in the general community and improve the overall health of the population, Limdi says.


Underpinning personalized medicine and genomics is informatics — collecting, processing and making massive amounts of data available to researchers and clinicians in relevant, meaningful ways that advance research and improve patient care. According to a 2013 report by the United States Chamber of Commerce about “big data,” 90 percent of the data available in the world was produced in the previous two years. The National Institutes of Health created the “Big Data to Knowledge” initiative in order to “support the research, implementation and training of data science” to make data “a more prominent component of biomedical research.”   

Fitting hand in glove with the NIH and other national initiatives, the UAB Informatics Institute will develop informatics in four key areas: data management; software expansion and development; bioinformatics, to support and propel medicine and health care specifically; and education of trainees and physicians to support research and clinical activities and train future informaticians, Vickers says.

“The UAB Informatics Institute will transform UAB into a learning health care system,” Vickers said.

The Institute of Medicine, of which Vickers is a member, began creating the “learning health care system” concept several years ago. Such a system is driven by the full gamut of data collected in clinical and research settings, from patient feedback and vital signs to sequenced DNA of a particular type of tumor, to managing large populations of patients.

“In a learning health care system,” Vickers said, “data are continuously collected, shared, analyzed and used to propel clinical care, research and education.”

The School of Medicine will conduct a national search for a director of the Informatics Institute.