Case Western Reserve researcher leads project to expand, accelerate personalized medicine with $3.2M NIH grant

With a new five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a Case Western Reserve University researcher is leading a project to expand and accelerate the evolution of personalized medicine in treating diseases.

Erman Ayday, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Computer and Data Sciences, aims to make it easier and faster for researchers to collect and share genomic data—while also improving privacy protections for those who participate in such studies.  

Genome sequencing is a process used to interpret the genetic material in an organism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The order—or sequence—of genes can be compared to identify mutations, which, in turn, can lead to discovery of the primary causes of a disease. From there, researchers and clinicians can use this information to develop personalized treatments.

To treat cancer, for example, many physicians use the makeup of a patient’s genes to determine which drugs to use and in what doses—a more precise and effective approach than following the same method for every patient.

The more that medical researchers can securely share genomic data, the more they can collaborate on large-scale studies that can lead to life-changing breakthroughs. The expectation is personalized treatment can eventually be expanded to all genetically related diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, Ayday said.

Such achievements are only possible, however, if research participants are certain that privacy of their personal genomic information is protected, explained Ayday, also director of the Case School of Engineering’s Security, Privacy and Data Science Laboratory.

Due to such privacy concerns, access to genomic data is heavily restricted, and collaborative studies can only be conducted after lengthy Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews.

“What I develop allows medical researchers to collaborate faster and easier under strong privacy guarantees,” said Ayday, faculty co-director of xLab, at the university’s Weatherhead School of Management, which works with companies to design new digital innovations for products, services and business models. “It will certainly pave the way toward personalized medicine much faster.” 

Ayday is leading the project in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston (UTHealth) and Rutgers University. Working with the Institutional Review Boards of all three entities, Ayday and his team will also design a pilot study to explore how the IRB review process can accelerate using the tools that provide strong privacy guarantees proposed in their research.