Conference at Duke to showcase Triangle “precision medicine” leadership

Duke University is poised to host a confab later this month for some of the country’s top talent in the field of “precision medicine” that’s developing from advances in genomics and “big data” analysis.

The Fuqua School of Business will serve as the venue for the Precision Medicine World Conference, which will begin May 24 and continue on May 25. Gov. Roy Cooper is scheduled to help welcome attendees, joining a list of speakers that includes National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.

The event is a new, East Coast version of an annual conference that originated in 2010 in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Officials at Duke want theirs to likewise become an annual event.

“What we’re trying to do is call attention to the burgeoning enterprise being developed in the Research Triangle that’s dealing with biotechnology in general and precision medicine in particular,” said Ralph Snyderman, the emeritus health affairs chancellor of Duke and one of the key organizers of the conference here. “It’s a great statement that we have this recognition, and it’s an opportunity to build on this and become a force in this area.”

Conference sessions will address such things as the state of the art in genome sequencing, healthcare decision-making, cancer immunology, the applications of genomics in drug development, gene splicing, clinical trials and insurance policy. A late afternoon panel on May 24 will bring together Snyderman, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine dean Bill Roper, N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson and other experts to discuss the role of academia in biotechnology development.

“It’s a broad overview as well as a deep dive into many of the foundational elements of precision medicine,” Snyderman said of the conference agenda.

There’s also a definite showcasing-the-home-team element to it, though the speaker’s list includes people from up and down the East Coast and the home team isn’t just Duke.

“UNC, N.C. State and Wake Forest [University] all have programs in this area,” said another of the conference’s key organizers, Geoff Ginsburg, director of the Duke Center for Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine. “Hopefully it’s more a North Carolina opportunity than a Duke opportunity.”

Ginsburg added that because the field “advances through collaborative work and collegiality,” the conference is a chance for professors and students to meet people and become “part of a bigger team to advance” it.

The Silicon Valley version of the Precision Medicine World Conference has hosted up to 1,400 people, so it’s no small affair. Similarly branded events have occurred in Israel and Great Britain.

Given tight travel and work schedules, an East Coast version is a natural development, though “we’ll have to see after the [Duke] conference is over whether it’s been viewed as a success,” Ginsburg said.

The “precision medicine” of the conference’s name is a refinement of the Silicon Valley version’s original “personalized medicine.” The term in either case refers to the possibility that genomics and data crunching can open the door to customized medical treatments for cancer and other ailments.

When he was health affairs chancellor, Snyderman pushed Duke to dive into the field, and late in his tenure brought in Ginsburg to head up the Applied Genomics center.

Back then, “we had incredible expectations” for the paradigm, Snyderman said, acknowledging that progress was slower than first hoped.

But “it is getting traction,” and has already changed cancer care in major ways, he said, adding he thinks the field is “at the tipping point” because of the speed with which data-processing, gene sequencing and gene-splicing technology is developing.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg