How Veterans Affairs is leading with big data, precision medicine

The federal agency wants to share the anonymous DNA blood samples of half a million veterans for use in research.
By Susan Morse
01:05 PM
Veterans Affairs leading with big data

CLEVELAND -- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is carrying through on initiatives set by former Vice President Joe Biden, who last year told healthcare experts at the Medical Innovation Summit that innovators can and will defeat cancer.

This year, Veterans Affairs Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Policy and Services Jennifer Lee said the federal agency’s precision medicine and big data initiatives have resulted in the gathering of blood samples of an estimated half million veterans.

The VA has been gathering genomic data since 2012 when it launched the Million Veteran Program to get blood samples from 1 million veterans. 

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[Also: VA proposes CARE Act to address health IT problems]

The information gleaned from their DNA will be used to better serve their health, and is being stored anonymously for use in research. The aim is to build one of the world's largest databases of genetic and other health information, Lee said.

“The goal is to expand secure computational capacity and establish a safe CLIA (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) compliant biorepository,” Lee said.

Best of all, for health researchers who have trouble getting enough patients for clinical trials, the VA wants to share its information.

[Also: House passes VA medical scribes bill to reduce wait times, improve care]

“The VA is seeking collaborations with other mega cohorts to conduct large-scale genomic studies,” Lee said.

In a move furthering Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, the VA’s, precision oncology program provides veterans access to genomic tests. This includes next generation sequencing and liquid biopsies.

The VA has a partnership with IBM Watson to send tumor samples and data to the technology healthcare company.

Veterans make up 3.5 percent of all cancer cases in the U.S., Lee said

In other innovations, the VA is using big data to target early intervention for suicide risk. Every day, 20 veterans take their lives by suicide, Lee said. The VA Reach Vet program identifies veterans who may be at risk by tapping information from their electronic health records.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
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Read our coverage of the 2017 Medical Innovation Summit in Cleveland.
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