Harlem Word: Dr. Elizabeth Cohn talks about how precision medicine can be used to improve health

GHHEditor March 23rd

Dr. Elizabeth Cohn is a researcher and health activist working on precision medicine and genomics. She has academic posts at both Adelphi University  and Columbia University, where she works to improve the diversity of gene banks so that medical research will include a wider range of people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. She is part of the national All of Us program, a precision medicine initiative launched by President Obama. She is also a board member of Harlem Health Revival, a group that devotes itself to making sure everyone, regardless of background, has an equal opportunity for good health and improving the overall health of Harlem Communities.  In this article she tells us more about how precision medicine can be used to improve the health of people who are suffering from diseases such as cancer.


Q: Is genetic testing different from precision medicine?


A:Yes Genetic testing is often done to help someone learn whether or not they have a certain gene or set of genes that are linked to a specific disease. For instance, many people get tested to see if they have the gene for Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia.


Whereas, precision medicine may be used to diagnose, treat or  tailor medical treatmen. Precision Medicine also tests all the genes in your body at once (this set of genes in total is called “the genome”). By testing all the genes in your body at the same time, scientists get a lot of data—some that they know what it means and some that they don’t. This is especially true for minorities, as most tests to define what is “normal” have been done with European whites. This is why we need genes from all types of people (not just European whites) to be tested.


Q: Can you give us some specific examples of how precision medicine is being used?


A: It can be used for great things. For example, in some (but not all) cancers, we can now  use precision medicine to find out what the best treatment would be from the start. This speeds the time from diagnosis to the finding the right treatment.



Q: What’s the most important thing we should understand about precision medicine?


A: It is a new turning point in medicine. Many of us are working hard to help people find correct, truthful information about what precision medicine can do and what it can’t. For instance, I have designed a series of four videos that have basic information on what precision medicine is and how it can be used to improve the future health of our communities. Precision medicine could play a big role in the future of healthcare. It needs to be available to everyone. That’s why it’s so important for people of all kinds to get involved in the studies that will be teaching us more about how to use PM. There are studies at universities and hospitals that you can join. Participating in precision medicine studies, like the one we’ll be running at Columbia, gives people a chance to get involved in precision medicine as it is still being developed


How can people in Harlem find out more about precision medicine?


People can contact me by email at ec2341@ columbia.edu. I’d love to do workshops that share information about precision medicine with churches, community centers, schools, and other community groups. I am even available on the weekends—whatever works to spread the word about what precision medicine is and how people can get involved if they want to!


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