Inside Imagenetics, ‘it’s preventative medicine on steroids’

This piece is presented by South Dakota Biotech.

Sanford Imagenetics is one of the first programs in the nation to embed genetic medicine within primary care to guide treatments and prevention. It also enhances medical genetic services by providing Sanford Health physicians with unprecedented patient-specific information and access to advanced genetic analysis.

The Imagenetics building, which contains the medical genomics laboratory, opened this week on the main campus of Sanford Health.

We sat down with David Pearce, executive vice president of research and innovation, and Dr. Cornelius Boerkoel, executive director of the Sanford Imagenetics Research Center on Genomic and Molecular Medicine, to learn more about the program.

David Pearce

What makes Imagenetics unique in the medical and research fields?

Pearce: It’s the first time a health system is trying to take all the complicated information that comes from the human genome, everything that we know about genetics and apply it to your health. Everyone is susceptible to some anomaly. This is our way to make life more comfortable by predicting whether you’ll have something and then trying to treat or prevent it.

Boerkoel: Imagenetics is one of the first implementations of genetic medicine at the point of care and has the objective of improving care for patients in rural settings. Throughout the world, genetic medicine and access to these tools have mostly lived in large medical centers. Consequently, patients had to travel. This initiative brings access to the patient and thus mitigates the disparity due to geographic isolation.

Let’s back up – what is genetic medicine?

Cornelius Boerkoel

Boerkoel: Genetic medicine is really a philosophical discussion of who we are as humans and how diseases arises. It looks at how the interaction of the social and natural environments and the genome, which is what we inherited from our parents. Traditionally, medicine was broken down by anatomy – a heart doctor, an orthopedist.

Genetic medicine looks more holistically – across disciplines. It’s allows us to better understand what causes diseases, what medicines to prescribe and how to intervene before people become ill.

Pearce: We’re trying to build a giant encyclopedia, and we just keep adding to it. Right now, we have a table of contents and a lot of blank pages. Imagenetics will allow us to fill those blank pages. If you get chest pains, think about all the different tests that may be run on you. If you know you may be predisposed to something, you can narrow the tests you need. This could have a huge impact on health care economics. It’s preventative medicine on steroids. It’s not an encyclopedia of human life, it’s the encyclopedia of the individual. It’s everything science knows about you, as an individual. The Imagenetics program, rather than picking subspecialties, is picking everything.

How does this look in the primary care model?

Boerkoel: This has not been done, and that’s why the Imagenetics team is attracting people from around the world. Part of what we’re inventing is how to use this data in primary care.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a significant amount of discovery of variations in genes, the relationship of those variations to human diseases and the interventions that mitigate those diseases. Once you know that, you know what the intervention should be. It doesn’t work in primary care to make people worried if you can’t intervene to mitigate the worry.

Add that to the use of electronic medical records, and we can build best-practices guidelines. Then when a patient has a variant, it comes with guidelines such that the genetic data is understandable and meaningful for patient care.

How have you seen the research community evolve in Sioux Falls and South Dakota?

Pearce: We’ve been very successful in growing our research base over the past eight years. This is a cutting-edge program, and we are ideally positioned to take advantage of this new technology.

Our reputation has grown. We are nationally recognized in a number of areas, and regionally we’ve done a good job of reaching out. Sanford has more funding in biomedical research from the National Institutes of Health than all the other institutions in the state combined. And we’ve made it relevant to our patients.

Boerkoel: People are very surprised when they hear what’s going on in South Dakota and that we’re a world leader in this.

Talk about your lecture series, which is open to the public. Who might benefit from this?

Pearce: The Sanford PROMISE began because we wanted to invite children to see what kind of research we are doing and to help them aspire to be scientists. Science is fun for children. If you’re 12 years old and you get to come into a lab and get engaged in research, then maybe you want to be a researcher.

As Imagenetics evolves, it’s ripe for being explained to young people, and there are a lot of different lectures that can be had in that area.

What could the biotech community do to further support the efforts of Imagenetics?

Pearce: We’ve build a lot of strong relationships and have a number of research projects in the works. Biotech comes to us because of our expertise and our facilities, and they look to us for leadership. We look to them to partner and develop tools that may have an impact on our patients.

Boerkoel: We rely on them. To take research from concept to practice, we need the biotech industry. Whether it’s lab equipment or software, we rely on that translation. We need them to continue to innovate, to adapt the research findings in the field and turn them into tools.

We need to reduce the cost of whole genome sequencing, and the biotech industry has aggressively driven that down. We need to integrate multiple data streams into the invention of mathematical and computation instruments. As those become more robust and the costs go down, that means there are more integrated solutions that can be given to the primary care physicians in a more interpretable manner.

Imagenetics was established in 2014 thanks to a generous gift of $125 million from philanthropist Denny Sanford. 

Look inside Sanford’s new Imagenetics building

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Inside Imagenetics, ‘it’s preventative medicine on steroids’

“This has not been done, and that’s why the Imagenetics team is attracting people from around the world.”

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