USF Health Grows Blood Bank, Studies Genetics Of Heart Diseases, Tampa

Plans for a high-tech blood bank are underway at the University of South Florida Tampa. But this is not your ordinary blood bank.
USF Health is building a bio-repository or library of blood samples from patients with high blood pressure, "clogged'' arteries, abnormal heart rhythms and heart failure -- all different forms of heart disease.
Kept at minus 80 degrees, the blood can remain viable for 10 years or more, says Dr. Leslie Miller, USF chief of cardiovascular sciences
Banking the blood will allow scientists to look for answers about heart disease. But instead of testing the blood for the routine factors you'd expect from the doctor's office at your annual visit -- cholesterol, glucose, iron count and more -- the researchers will be examining the DNA.
Miller came to Tampa in 2010 from Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. One of his responsibilities is to oversee the launch of a new USF Health Heart Institute, of which the blood bank will be a key piece.  
"We are very excited about the power of what we hope to do here,'' says Miller. The goal is twofold: to better understand heart disease and to develop more effective cardiac treatments based on genomics, which is the study of the genes in the body.
Looking at the genes in cells is an evolving area of medicine, especially in cancer, where new treatments are tied to the genetic profile of tumor cells. It's a concept called personalized medicine and it allows therapies to be targeted or tailored to each patient.  
Moffitt Cancer Center, a freestanding cancer center in Tampa and Florida's only comprehensive care center, has been doing this for almost a decade with its tumor bank.
Now the same focus is being applied to heart disease. An important piece of the new USF project will be a collaboration with the American College of Cardiology, a nonprofit medical society with 40,000 member physicians, nurses and other health professionals. 

ACC Partners With USF Health

The ACC selected the new USF heart institute for the first trial that will link genetic studies of blood samples with the ACC's existing database of clinical information on patients with cardiovascular disease, says Miller. Having the ACC sign on as a partner is a major coup for USF Health. "It's an incredible connection for us,'' says Miller.

What do researchers expect to discover from looking at the DNA in blood? 
"We're looking for genetic biomarkers,'' says Miller. "When you take out the environmental factors that raise the risk for heart disease, like smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet and being overweight, there are still people who do everything right in terms of health and yet they develop heart disease. Their genetics puts them at risk.''
In addition to evolving into a national center for cardiovascular research, a key focus for the USF Heart Institute will be fostering the development of a new era of cardiac drugs tied to the patient's genetic profile.
Patients will benefit, of course. But so will the local economy. There is the potential for business spin-offs and start-up companies to organize around the discoveries made and for pharmaceutical companies to commercialize the technology, says Miller.
In June, USF Health hosted a roundtable discussion of industry leaders and the leadership of the American College of Cardiology to discuss the role of genomics in drug discoveries and medical device development.

Collaboration Runs Deep
While USF Health is just beginning to move into the area of genetics related to heart disease, Moffitt Cancer Center has been focused on the DNA of cancer for some time.
Moffitt maintains a tissue bank that holds tumor samples from about 32,000 patients. Those patients, plus another 36,000, are also enrolled in a database of clinical information. Patients at Moffitt and 17 collaborating hospitals in Florida and nine other states are participating in the program.
Like USF Heart's Institute, Moffitt's wealth of data about patients is tied to the prevention and cure of disease by analyzing the DNA. It's also about the discovery of new targeted drugs using genetic information.
According to Michael Heekan, COO of M2Gen, Moffitt's subsidiary company that manages the database, there are other research centers doing what Moffitt is doing, but "in terms of scale, no one is even close to what we have. We believe we are the leader in this area and we are actively promoting collaboration with other organizations to leverage what we've built.'' 
Dr. William "Bill'' Dalton, Moffitt's CEO for the last decade, stepped into a new role this summer directing the growth of both M2Gen and Moffitt's new Personalized Medicine Institute. "The vision for the future is to increase the scale of the project,'' says Heekan. It's all about fueling the discovery of new treatments to change the future of cancer care.''

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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