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VCU joins national project to advance health research for all

NIH project may fuel new insights toward ‘precision medicine.’

Illustration, many people, diverse races, ethnicities

Medical research leads to better clinical care. The larger the sample size and the more diverse the participants, the more that research tells us about human health.

To help build the largest-of-its-kind health database, Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health are joining a national project to understand better why people get sick or stay healthy. The All of Us Research Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invites 1 million or more people across the U.S. to partner in this effort and share their information to drive medical breakthroughs.

VCU Health is one of three sites chosen — and the only one on the East Coast — to roll out a new approach to recruitment for the program. VCU Health hopes to help 250 to 1,000 people enroll.

“We’re proud to contribute to this historic project,” said F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., director of the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and the VCU lead for All of Us. “As communities in Virginia work to combat the health disparities heightened by COVID-19, diverse representation in research has never felt more critical. All of Us will help find answers to some of our foundational health challenges.”

NIH began national enrollment for All of Us in 2018, aiming to learn more about what prevention and treatments work best for people of different backgrounds, based on environment, lifestyle, family history and genetic makeup. Over the course of the program, anticipated to last 10 years or more, volunteers will be able to contribute information through surveys, electronic health records, wearable technologies and biosamples (blood, urine and/or saliva).

Their data and samples, kept under strict safeguards to protect participants’ privacy, will be broadly accessible to researchers nationwide for use in thousands of studies on different health conditions. Results will help researchers develop precision medicine techniques, which doctors use to care for patients based on an understanding of the individual differences that influence health and disease.

“Many things can affect our health – from where we live and work, to what we do, to our family health histories,” said Josh Denny, M.D., All of Us’ chief executive officer. “The more researchers can learn about what makes us unique, the more tailored health care can become in the future.”

All of Us has a special focus on including communities that have been underrepresented in research in the past, to support discoveries that reduce health disparities. Currently, of the more than 271,000 participants who have completed the initial steps of the program, more than 80% come from underrepresented communities. That includes racial and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, rural residents, older adults and other groups.

As part of the partnership, VCU will support the secure transfer of electronic health records for participants at VCU Health who wish to share them. The records are a critical component of the All of Us dataset because they help researchers to get a more complete picture of participants’ health, with information about diagnoses, medical visits, treatments and more.

“What’s unique about this study, beyond its size, is that participants are really partners in the project,” said Moeller. “They’ll shape the research with their input, and they’ll receive information back – to learn about their own health.”

Joining Moeller in leading VCU’s involvement are Tamas Gal, M.B.A., Ph.D., the director of research informatics at the Wright Center, and Robert Winn, M.D., director of VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Winn co-led Illinois’ All of Us program in his previous role at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Science System in Chicago, and he brings expertise in the community-engaged research that this project typifies.

“Determining how biological and social determinants interact to cause disease or promote health will help our nation develop better strategies to prevent illness and improve treatment options for highly challenging and complex diseases,” said Arthur L. Kellermann, M.D. M.P.H., senior vice president of VCU Health Sciences and CEO of VCU Health System. “Working in concert with our community partners and other participants in the NIH All of Us initiative, VCU can help strengthen the health of communities throughout Virginia and across the U.S.”

The NIH awarded a grant in September to the Wright Center, as a Clinical and Translational Science Award hub, of $346,000 to support the complex data infrastructure behind linking local records to a national database. The grant helps cover the cost of the All of Us activities and another project, the National COVID Cohort Collaborative, which the Wright Center joined this summer.

The National COVID Cohort Collaborative created a national, centralized database of information on COVID-19 that will help researchers study the virus at a meaningful scale.

This work is supported by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences through award number UL1TR002649 at the VCU Wright Center.

All of Us is a service mark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.