Personalized medicine at Penn State Hershey gives patients focused care

March 15, 2013

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Members of the Penn State Board of Trustees heard today (March 15) about Penn State Hershey’s investment in personalized medicine research, a rapidly evolving approach to medicine that allows doctors to tailor treatments to each individual rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.

Dr. Daniel Notterman, vice dean for research and graduate studies, gave trustees an overview of personalized medicine, which uses advanced computational methods to analyze and study genetic and biologic information, along with data in the electronic health record. This information can help healthcare professionals more accurately predict and diagnose disease. In the past, doctors based treatments on research that studied broad groups of people, finding what is most likely to help a majority of patients. While this approach has been successful, it is not always efficient since each person is unique --meaning treatments that work well for one person may not work well for another.

“In treating all people with a certain lung cancer without having a genetic test, for example, 10 percent of people might respond,” Notterman said. “In treating people who have a genetic test and are found to have a tumor mutation, 85 percent of people treated for that mutation might respond. That speaks to the real life-saving potential of the work we’re doing now.”

Penn State Hershey launched the Institute for Personalized Medicine in early 2012 following the recruitment of James Broach from Princeton University as its inaugural director and chair of the College of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

In fall 2012, the institute began inviting patients of Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and its outpatient practice sites to participate in the institute’s bio-repository. A bio-repository is a collection of blood, saliva and tissue samples from willing participants, paired with de-identified data from their electronic health records, which allows scientists to look for genetic clues to disease. Patients are asked to give their consent and a sample during the course of a regularly scheduled appointment or procedure. Since recruitment began, Broach told the trustees today, about 90 percent of patients asked to participate have consented to do so.

The institute is actively recruiting participants in three specialty clinics with plans to extend the opportunity to patients of seven more soon, Broach said.

In January, Penn State Hershey celebrated the opening of dedicated space for the institute on the second floor of the College of Medicine, where scientists will process, analyze and securely store samples collected from participants of the bio-repository project.

The institute’s goal is to develop an understanding of how biological and genetic information, combined with the environment, affect each person’s unique risk to develop cancer, heart failure, stroke, dementia, autism and other diseases.

Lisa Schneper, a research associate in Notterman’s lab, told trustees about one project under way using the personalized medicine approach to better understand the genetics of autism.

Research has found increasing evidence for a genetic component to autism. Working with colleagues Webb Miller and Stephan Schuster at University Park, the Notterman research team is studying samples from families with twins or other multiples where at least one child has autism and another does not.

“We are looking at the differences between them at a genetic level,” Schneper said. “We hope what we find will help us improve our understanding of the genetics of autism, and that this understanding will lead to better diagnostics so that we can design better, earlier interventions.”

The team recently began collaborating with Dr. Michael Murray, director of the Penn State Hershey Autism Clinic, to recruit additional families for the study.

More than 300 members of the community learned about personalized medicine and the bio-repository project, as well as some potential clinical applications of the approach, at the first of two public meetings held on March 5 as part of this year’s Mini-Medical School program. The second opportunity for the public to learn about this new approach is March 19 at 7 p.m. at the Penn State Hershey Medical Group—Camp Hill practice site.

Learn more on the Institute for Personalized Medicine’s website at


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    Bill Freeman, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology, holds up a single flow cell on which a whole human genome can be sequenced. Human genome sequencing that once took months or years can now be finished in just a few days.

    IMAGE: Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 15, 2013