Henry Ford Health System plans to rapidly expand its life-extending precision medicine program in Detroit after the Jeffries family pledged $25 million to create a specialized center.
The $25 million donation, provided by developer Chris Jeffries and his wife, Lisa, is the largest single gift from individuals in Henry Ford's 105-year history and one of the largest in the nation for a precision medicine program, Henry Ford officials said.
"We are incredibly grateful to Lisa and Chris Jeffries for their generosity," Wright Lassiter III, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System, said in a statement. "We are experiencing a momentous era in medicine, a radical shift from the traditional approach to cancer care. This gift will help us consolidate and advance our collective efforts to create unprecedented access to advanced, highly personalized treatments for our patients and members."
But in the past three months, precision medicine — or precision health, as neurosurgeon Steven Kalkanis, M.D., CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group, likes to call it — is now available for a whole host of new treatments besides those for cancer.
"Hot off the press. There have been animal studies and now clinical studies, only in the last several months, where precision health is ready for prime time and for human beings," said Kalkanis, who also is Henry Ford's chief academic officer.
Over the past decade, precision medicine has been evolving as a new type of medical care that initially focused on treating patients with various forms of cancer, including brain, lung, colon and pancreatic. It works like this: By analyzing patients' own molecular profile and the genetic mutations of their tumors, doctors are able to use the information to develop personalized treatments that could be more effective than standard care.
Doctors are now using precision medicine approaches to treat many other conditions, including cystic fibrosis, asthma, depression, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and multiple sclerosis, Kalkanis said.
"We have a whole era opening up to treat a host of other chronic diseases, using precision medicine to identify patients' molecular profiles, but potentially using existing drugs for everything from asthma to high blood pressure to depression," Kalkanis said. "However, the majority (of precision medicine) is still about designing a tailored drug regimen for individual patients."
Kalkanis said patients with some chronic conditions will one day soon be able to take a blood test and have their molecular profile entered into a database of existing drugs that may be able to match to an existing drug or to new ones being created in real time.
"We have found, in one of our clinical trials, that a (patient had a) rare type of brain cancer with a mutation impacting glucose levels. We used an existing diabetes drug and the patient went into remission," Kalkanis said.
Why the Jeffries donated
Chris Jeffries' father, Gerald was diagnosed with a highly malignant brain tumor in 2001.
Treated initially by neuro-oncologist Tom Mikkelsen and later Kalkanis and the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center team, Gerald was given only nine to 11 months to live, but using a precision medicine approach, he lived another five years until he died in December 2006.
"That meant so much to us. It's impossible to describe," Chris Jeffries said in a statement. Lisa Jeffries also lost her stepfather to cancer.
A native of Flint, Chris Jeffries is co-founder of Millennium Partners, a real estate development company that specializes in mixed-use, urban living and entertainment centers in Boston; San Francisco; Miami; Washington D.C.; Los Angeles; and New York.
Last year, the Jeffries donated $33 million to the University of Michigan Law School, where Chris was a 1974 graduate. The donation is earmarked for student support, including scholarships and other forms of financial aid, summer funding programs, and debt management. It was the largest private donation to the law school in its history, UM said.
Kalkanis said Gerald Jeffries was one of the first cohorts of patients in Henry Ford's personalized medicine program long before it was called precision medicine, in the early 2000s.
"He was enrolled in a clinical trial at Henry Ford 10 to 15 years ago and treated with a novel drug based on his unique cancer characteristics," Kalkanis said. "Because of that, he lived way beyond his life expectancy. The family was very supportive of our program and especially wanted to provide this same hope to others once they learned of the enhanced capability of precision medicine."
Since Gerald Jeffries was treated and Henry Ford developed its precision medicine approach, Kalkanis said there have been a number of patients who have outlived their prognoses. He said doctors can now give patients and families more hope than ever.
"We went through the precision medicine protocol, based on his own unique biomarkers and using a novel drug," he said. "Today these tests have become much more accessible. (For instance), a decade ago, it cost $5,000 (for testing). Now it costs several hundred for the tests" that can lead to the novel, personalized treatment.
Henry Ford's precision medicine program
For years, Henry Ford has been at the forefront of the precision medicine revolution, making world-class, targeted cancer treatments available at its national destination referral center, the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, officials said.
"By analyzing genetic and non-genetic factors, we can gain a better understanding of how a disease forms, progresses and can be treated in a specific patient," Mikkelsen, who is Henry Ford's medical director of the Precision Medicine Program and Clinical Trials Office, said in a statement.
"As of now, we can check for more than 500 genomic markers, which helps us understand the pattern of changes in a patient's tumor cells that influence how cancer grows and spreads," Mikkelsen said. "I'm confident this gift will lead to advancements that provide hope for patients with even the most complex diagnoses."
Kalkanis said the $25 million donation, which is expected to be received over the next several years, will enable Henry Ford to do a number of things.
"It takes investment to build out our biodepository with tissue samples, test them, look for biomarkers and see if (patients are) eligible for certain drugs," Kalkanis said. "We need to design our lab platform that is FDA-approved and recruit the best and brightest scientists and clinicians (specializing in) other cancer types."
Based on the current projection of about four to five chronic diseases and about 10 subspecialties that can be addressed by precision medicine, Kalkanis estimated Henry Ford will recruit two to three scientists and clinicians each year for the next few years.
"We are launching the search process for key researchers and working with the lab and pathology group for tests this calendar year," he said. "We should be up and running over the next year."
Adnan Munkarah, M.D., Henry Ford's executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said taking research in the lab and translating it to patient care is a standard process at Henry Ford.
"(It) is a critical element to help us treat many of the most challenging conditions our patients face," Munkarah said in a statement. "Translational research is bench-to-bedside, meaning it allows patients to benefit from discoveries in real time. That is an essential part of our history and commitment to medicine and academics — not only offering the latest innovations in medicine, but also playing a leading role in their development."
Precision medicine is an approach to patient care that allows doctors to select treatments most likely to help patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease.
"The support of our donors is the fuel behind our clinical innovations and the breakthroughs that are improving people's lives," Mary Jane Vogt, Henry Ford's senior vice president and chief development officer, said in a statement. "It is remarkable to work with donors who believe in a better tomorrow and the power of a unified approach to medicine."
The Jeffrieses said they believe Henry Ford will achieve transformational advancements in cancer treatment using precision medicine and personalized treatments.
"The team at Henry Ford is second to none," said Chris Jeffries. "We believe this gift will lead to other families having more time together, as I had with my father. Defeating cancer requires a concerted effort from everyone and we hope to make as big an impact on that goal as possible."