This summer 23andMe launched a new research initiative to study Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 23andMe has the good fortune to be collaborating with Pfizer on this study. Pfizer brings a wealth of experience and a great team of scientists to help in this work. Among those is Pfizer’s director of precision medicine, Kenneth Eugene Hung, who is both an MD and a PhD. At Pfizer, Dr. Hung has spent the last two years working as a gastroenterology clinical lead focusing specifically on inflammatory bowel disease. He not only knows a lot about the disease, but impact on patients.In his work Dr. Hung spearheaded novel clinical trial designs for the development of drugs used for IBD patients. He’s looked at biomarkers that could be used to help target drugs for patients with IBD. This approach of finding the right drug for the right patient is the cornerstone of precision medicine. Both 23andMe and Pfizer are hopeful that our IBD study will advance precision medicine in the treatment of IBD. Dr. Hung took a few minutes to answer some questions and share a little bit more about his background and involvement in IBD research. How did you get into IBD research?
IBD is a heartbreaking chronic disease that often manifests at a young age and can result in debilitating long-term complications. As such, caring for these patients presents a great humanistic challenge to the clinical gastroenterologist. The complex interaction between the mucosal immune system and the fecal microbiome in IBD pathophysiology presents a great intellectual challenge to the scientific immunologist. Taken together, maybe we should ask: “Why wouldn’t one get into IBD research?”
What is your involvement with the 23andMe/Pfizer study?As the gastroenterology clinical lead in precision medicine at Pfizer, my role in this collaboration has been to provide integrated clinical and scientific expertise. As a board certified gastroenterologist that has treated mild to severe IBD patients, I have been able to help derive the clinical questions of interest vital for success, but in the context of scientific feasibility. With my scientific background incorporating immunology, mouse models, and genomic/proteomic biomarker discovery, I have been able to help mold the research plan in a targeted manner to answer the critical clinical questions.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this study?
In this study, we aim to use genetics as a tool to define subtypes of IBD that behave similarly in the clinic. By focused study of these individual subtypes, we may be able to predict long-term clinical outcomes, thus identifying those individuals that should be targeted for early and/or aggressive clinical treatment. Furthermore, we may be able to identify patient characteristics that could predict response to targeted therapies, thus sparing patients the “trial and error” approach to IBD treatment that is often used. Finally, we would like to substantially further our understanding of the basic pathophysiology of IBD. It is only through this approach that we can make truly great strides in the fight against IBD.
What does success look like?
Success can be measured in both the short- and long-term. Immediate success could be in the form of identification of a discrete subtype of IBD that best responds to a particular targeted therapy. However, long-term success could derive from laying the foundation for better understanding of IBD pathophysiology that may ultimately lead to a cure.
What do you think the future of personalized medicine is (generally and specifically for IBD patients)?
Personalized medicine is now a reality in oncology, where the identification of a specific genetic mutation can routinely predict clinical response to targeted therapies. Such promise has been elusive in IBD, being a more complex disease that derives from the interplay of multiple genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors. Nonetheless, with the explosion in “omic” technologies, we hope to make great strides in defining smaller subpopulations of IBD that have similar clinical behavior. The collaboration between 23andMe and Pfizer may be a pivotal step towards making personalized medicine in IBD a reality, with the ultimate goal being able to deliver the right drug to the right patient at the right time.
What accomplishment are you most proud of (professionally or personally)?
I am most proud of my family, which is always there for me no matter what happens during my day job. My wife, Rebecca, of 19 years is a physician in Boston and has supported me in every phase of my career development. My daughter and son constantly keep us entertained and on our toes. Taken together, I truly feel lucky.
I was born in Chicago, Illinois, but grew up mostly in Washington, D.C.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
I enjoy playing basketball and tennis and watching my kids play soccer. Having lived in Boston for the past 13 years, I have no choice but to be an avid Boston sports fan. Sorry, New Yorkers. GO SOX!!!