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Obama Declares for Personalized Medicine

By Kevin Davies

Feb. 12, 2007 | As George W. Bush enters the fourth quarter of his presidency, it is impossible to ignore the growing enthusiasm (certainly among liberal media circles) that engulfs one candidate for the White House in 2008 — Democratic Senator Barack Obama.

2006 was a momentous year for the Illinois Senator. He was interviewed on Oprah and naturally won her endorsement. He was mobbed by raucous crowds on his first trip to New Hampshire. He toured the natural and manmade devastation in New Orleans and Darfur. And he published a bestseller, “The Audacity of Hope.”

On a lighter note, there was also a brilliant self parody that aired on ESPN Monday Night Football, in which the Senator looked into the camera and intoned: “Tonight, I would like to announce.... that I am ready... for the Bears to go all the way, baby! Duh-duh-duh-duh.” (See

Since his election to the Senate in 2004, Obama has been busy in the Senate, sponsoring bills spanning a range of issues, most serious — bills for Hurricane Katrina relief and alternative fuels — and some not so serious, to wit: “A resolution to congratulate the Chicago White Sox on winning the 2005 World Series.”

But it may surprise a number of readers, as it did me, to read about one bill sponsored by Obama last August, as it drew little attention at the time and didn’t reach a vote. The “Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2006” (S.3822) is a bill that seeks “to improve access to and appropriate utilization of valid, reliable, and accurate molecular genetic tests by all populations thus helping to secure the promise of personalized medicine for all Americans.”

For all of Obama’s articulateness, the bill was actually a curious hodgepodge of (albeit welcome) funding initiatives and tax incentives allied with the unappetizing prospect of a new, unwieldy federal multiagency working group trying to get something done. Obama’s bill called for the establishment of a Genomics and Personalized Medicine Interagency Working Group, to be made up of members from the NIH, CDC, FDA, DOE, and several others. Through this body, chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, $150 million would have been set aside this year “to collect genetic and genomic data that will advance the field of genomics and personalized medicine.” Examples include studies of gene-environment interactions and population health disparities.

The bill also called for the creation of a national biobanking distributed database “for the integration of data, including genomic data and associated environmental and clinical health information,” thereby facilitating the pooled analysis and synthesis of such data. Obama proposed for more research on race and genomics, including ways to increase access to effective pharmacogenomic and other clinical genetic services for minority populations.

The late introduction of the bill meant it had little chance of being passed before the 109th session of Congress ended. But Obama has begun the process of building support with colleagues, and a spokesperson for the Senator said it was quite possible the bill could be reintroduced in the new session.

The bill concluded with a “Sense of the Senate” section, in which Obama lobbied for further progress in the field of genetic privacy legislation to advance personalized medicine:

“Without a Federal law banning genetic discrimination, people may fear losing their health insurance and their employment, and subsequently (a) avoid participating in research that collects genetic information; and (b) even decline clinical molecular testing that may provide lifesaving information... Fear of genetic discrimination will slow the pace of discovery in research and hinder the uptake of molecular testing in a clinical setting, both of which will undermine efforts to translate and apply personalized medicine technology.” 

Obama will doubtless be rooting for the passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (H. R. 493), or GINA, which was reintroduced in the House of Representatives last month by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and an impressive 151 co-sponsors, having already passed in a landslide in the Senate.

Whether a man named Barack Hussein Obama can ever be elected President of the United States remains to be seen. But he is one of few members of congress who sees the genomics tidal wave and is doing something about it. Obama may be a Democrat, but drug and biotech industries have reason to hope.

Email Kevin Davies.

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