Dr. Elizabeth Cohn is a researcher and health activist working on precision medicine and genomics. She has academic posts at both Adelphi University and Columbia University, where she works to improve the diversity of gene banks, so that medical research will include a wider range of people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. She is part of the national All of Us program, a precision medicine initiative launched by President Obama. She is also a working board member of Harlem Health Revival, a group that devotes itself to making sure everyone, regardless of background, has an equal opportunity for good health and improving the overall health of Harlem Communities. In this article she tells us about her involvement in a national program that aims to make sure that everyone has access to the newest developments in medicine and genomics.
Q: What should we do to educate the public about precision medicine?
A: Precision Medicine means tailoring medical care for a patient. It’s both a new and an old way of offering people medical care. It’s new in that specialized types of medical care (like for cancer or rare diseases) can now be tailored by understanding someone’s genetic makeup. But more basic forms of medical care have been tailored for a long time. Think: Eyeglasses, prescriptions, or finding out someone’s blood type for a transfusion.
Q: Is there work to be done in making sure that advances in precision medicine are available to everyone?
A: Education is key. We need genetic research to include everyone because genetically there are differences between people . Some of those differences are reflected in ancestry (like people who came from Africa may have a different genetic make up than people coming from Denmark). The need for more diversity in precision medicine research isn’t really race-based. Some people have more in common between racial groups than within them. There’s a tension in communities of color about medical research because of past abuses—what was done in Tuskegee, and the history of Henrietta Lacks. We’re developing medications based on research that mostly involves European white women. If we tailor care to them, it could result in a situation where people of one group have better health than members of another group.. We need to do outreach education in communities of color to be sure that people understand the importance of being included in these studies.
Q: What is being done to educate people about precision medicine?
A: Well, at a national level, the All of Us project [Link to previous article in series] has mobile outreach units that we are seeking to schedule and give people the information they need to know about precision medicine and genomics. Here, in Upper Manhattan, I am working on this by providing four educational videos explaining precision medicine.