Pharmacogenomic Researcher Awarded $10.6M

A University of Florida genetics researcher has received $10.6 million to further a national effort to use genetic data to more effectively pinpoint which medications and treatments are best for individual patients.

Julie A. Johnson, Pharm.D., the V. Ravi Chandran Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences and chair of pharmacotherapy and translational research in the College of Pharmacy, is one of 14 researchers who have received a five-year award as part of the National Institute of Health’s Pharmacogenomics Research Network.

With an eye to the future of personalized medicine, the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences has invested more than $160 million in these genetics investigators, and their associated resource development groups, to study responses to medicines for cancer, heart disease, asthma, nicotine addiction and several new areas added this summer.

“Through these studies, we are moving closer to the goal of using genetic information to help prescribe the safest, most effective medicine for each patient,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Johnson, who also directs the UF Center for Pharmacogenomics and is a professor of medicine in UF’s division of cardiovascular medicine, said the large award makes it possible to continue her ongoing work to discover the genes that result in different responses to blood pressure medications.

The genetic alphabet contains only four letters and these four letters are arranged billions of times to make up the human genome. Humans are about 99.9 percent identical in the arrangement of these letters, and it is the 0.1 percent who are not that might explain differences in disease risk or response to medications. Johnson’s lab is looking at places in the genetic code that differ between individuals and how they might affect response to blood pressure medication.

[videobox video=”” title=”Pharmacogenomic Researcher Awarded $10.6M”] video: Chris Bilowich, UF HSC News [/videobox]

About 75 million people in the United States and about 1 billion in the world have high blood pressure, making it the most common chronic disease in the world, Johnson said. And there are another 75 million people whose blood pressure is borderline high, she said. They represent a large population who are at very high risk for developing high blood pressure during the next 10 years.

Often called a silent killer, people don’t feel the effects of increased blood pressure and many lose patience with having to change prescriptions until they find the best one, Johnson said. She believes that matching the right drug early in the diagnosis, based on a person’s genetic information, will increase the number of people who adhere to their medication regimen.

“Our goal is to find the best medicine for a person from the beginning,” said Johnson, who is a member of the UF Genetics Institute. “Evidence shows that the sooner blood pressure is controlled, the less risk there is for other diseases such as heart attack, stroke and kidney failure.”

Johnson is looking at long-term implications of blood pressure drugs by using the genetic markers coupled with a specific drug that leads to lower risk of heart attack and stroke. Her lab is also taking a look at adverse affects of some medications. For example, in a small portion of the population, certain blood pressure drugs can increase the risk of developing diabetes. By finding the genetic markers, doctors will be able to avoid those drugs, and prescribe other drugs instead.

Her work in cardiovascular drug pharmacogenomics has been funded by the NIH or the American Heart Association since 1990. Johnson noted the importance of the NIGMS researchers’ network as a critical resource.

“One person can’t do it all,” Johnson said. “This award will benefit a large collaborative effort of investigators from UF and from other institutions, whose combined expertise and backgrounds make this research possible.”

The first two-and-a half years of the five-year funding will help to support clinical trials at three universities, including Emory University in Atlanta, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at UF at four UF Family Medicine sites in Gainesville, Fla. The remaining time will be devoted to laboratory analysis and statistical work to process the great volume of data generated, Johnson said.