Tags: redesigning care , research and discovery

A diverse gene pool is as important to scientific research as a diverse workforce is to ensuring a strong and vibrant organization, said Dr. Scott Weiss, Scientific Director of Partners HealthCare Personalized Medicine.

His comments came at the Association of Latino Professionals for America/Boston Health Care Summit held recently at the new Partners headquarters at Assembly Row in Somerville. The gathering included the announcement of a strategic partnership between Partners HealthCare and ALPFA Boston focusing on workforce, research, patient care and teaching.

Nearly 200 executives and professionals from ALPFA and Partners attended the event, which featured a presentation on genetics by Dr. Weiss. Personalized medicine is the study of how a person’s disease risks are unique and different and how genes play a role in diagnosing and treating disease. 

Dr. Weiss and Dr. Marisela Marrero, Emergency Room Surgeon at Partners’ North Shore Medical Center and co-founder of ALPFA’s Healthcare Committee, explained those risks are based on predispositions written into one’s genome, or genetic information, combined with individual lifestyle and environment factors.

Understanding a patient’s genetic make-up can be an early warning of disease and enable physicians to screen more aggressively for diseases to which patients may be predisposed. It can enable planning to reduce the chances of developing specific diseases, using pharmacogenomics, the understanding of how genetic variants affect a person’s chance of responding to a medication without side effects or toxicity.

While social and cultural factors are important determinants in providing equitable healthcare, many scientists believe that race has no validity as a determinant, they said. Others believe, however, that it is a useful construct to help find disease-causing alleles.

For example, scientists learned sickle cell anemia is a disease affecting one racial group when they discovered a specific allele confined largely to people of African origin.

A major asset in personalized medicine is a repository of consented patient samples linked to an electronic medical record and supplemented with health information and family histories. The Partners Biobank currently has more than 50,000 consented patients, of whom 39,000 have provided samples. That’s halfway to the target of 100,000 consented patients. 

But, Dr. Weiss said, 87 percent of Biobank samples are from white patients. Increasing diversity of the sample population will “help us better understand, treat, and even prevent the diseases that might affect your health and the health of future generations.” (For more information, please visit https://biobank.partners.org/)

The doctors stressed other factors play into whether we get diseases, including lifestyle practices such as exercise and smoking, and environmental factors such air pollution or sun exposure based on where we live or work.

The alliance with ALPFA Boston, the second largest chapter of a national, not-for-profit professional association focused on expanding Latino leadership in the global workforce, is one of many being created to help Partners’ executives build a Diversity Strategy, said Dani Monroe, Partners Chief Diversity Officer.

“We are committed to working with a broad array of organizations to ensure that we are not only cultivating relationships with the brightest minds, but to strengthening our business imperative to enhance our research, patient care, teaching and recruiting.”

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