Mountain View Voice

News - October 7, 2011

El Camino class to help doctors unlock gene therapy

Hospital aims to train doctors in the emerging field of genomics

by Nick Veronin

Researchers say it may prove to be the key to curing cancer, slowing down aging and reversing the ravages of Parkinson's. Unfortunately, say officials at El Camino Hospital, many primary care physicians don't know enough about genomics — the study of how our genes impact our health — to have a meaningful conversation on the subject, let alone help a patient figure out which genetic test or treatment option is right for them.

In an effort to address this issue, El Camino Hospital's Genomics Medicine Institute is partnering with two national genetic medicine-focused organizations to offer physicians a certificated course in genomics.

The program begins Oct. 18 and will include 10 two-hour courses on genomics. The courses will touch upon general topics like "genetic risk assessment" and "fundamentals of genetic testing," as well as more specialized areas of gene therapy, like cancer, pediatrics, gerontology and cardiovascular health.

The idea, according to Dr. Eric Pifer, the hospital's chief medical officer, is to help doctors keep up with the rapidly changing and evolving landscape of genomic medicine.

According to the American Medical Association, only 10 percent of physicians thought they had enough knowledge to use gene tests in prescribing medicines.

Joan Scott, executive director of the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics, said in a press release that she hopes the program will address a knowledge gap that exists in the field and serve as a model for physicians around the country to improve their understanding of genomics.

"We think there is a critical need for physician education about genomics," Scott said. The coalition is one of two organizations the hospital is partnering with in the effort.

The other organization on board is Genetic Alliance.

"Surveys show that patients are increasingly looking to genomics in order to make informed decisions and to find better treatment options," said James O'Leary, chief innovation officer for Genetic Alliance. "Their doctors need to be able to communicate the risks and benefits of those decisions."

Pifer said that many patients read about genetic treatments in magazines and newspapers and show up at their doctor's office looking for professional advice, only to find that their doctor may know less than they do about it. He said that it is particularly important for doctors to be educated, as it often takes a doctoral degree to be able to discern which treatments are worth pursuing and which aren't.

"New applications could be good, or they could be flashes in the pan," Pifer said. There are many companies in the United States that can sequence a person's entire DNA, and some have marketed themselves to consumers promising that if they only learn their genome sequence they will have a road map of everything they need to know about their health, Pifer said.

But it isn't as simple as that, he warned, and having a primary care physician that is versed in the latest genomics research can help patients make better decisions.

"The fact of the matter is, when you get past the hype you realize that there are just incredibly useful and excellent applications of genomic tests," Pifer said.

And for patients seeing specialists, having a doctor that is familiar with genomic treatments for particular diseases is important, he explained, noting that the technology now exists to map the genomes not just of individuals but of an individual's cancer.

"The oncologist can come up with very specific treatments" based upon the genomic readout of cancer cells, he said. "It's treatments that are personalized not just to the type of cancer you have, but to your tumor."

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