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Opinion: Population Genomics Will Save Lives in St. Louis

Just as the Gateway Arch has long represented a gateway to the West and a sense of endless possibilities, population genomics represents the bold future of health and medicine that will help ensure every patient receives the best, personalized care possible.

Thousands of St. Louisans could benefit from genetic screening. Population genomics programs provide genetic testing across large communities of patients, helping to uncover genetic risk for diseases more efficiently at the point-of-care to improve patient outcomes and address community health inequities.

Take, for example, rates of breast cancer deaths in St. Louis County. A March 2019 study released by the county’s Department of Public Health found that the mortality rate for breast cancer was 90 percent higher among Black and African American women than white women – an indictment of the significant racial disparities that persist in our nation’s health care outcomes.

Population genomics would allow traditionally underserved and historically underrepresented populations to identify earlier their genetic risk or predisposition for diseases like breast cancer, which can increase the chances of successful prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. That’s because genomics can provide us with critical information about pathogenic variants in genes that would increase the likelihood that someone would develop a disease before symptoms present themselves, allowing doctors and patients to take preemptive action to delay or even prevent the condition from developing. For example, if a woman is found to have a high genetic risk for breast cancer, their doctors may then recommend mammograms at an earlier age or more sensitive MRIs – all steps toward earlier detection and prevention.

If integrated into routine clinical care, genomic sequencing will help to identify at-risk patients, support them, and improve health outcomes for the entire community.

And that’s exactly what we’re aiming to do in South Carolina. The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) launched “In Our DNA SC,” a community health research project that will screen 100,000 South Carolina adults – reflective of the state’s diverse population – for personal, genetic health risks. Programs like this one have identified as many as one in 75 participants who discovered they were at-risk for a serious health issue – 90 percent of whom would not have been detected through traditional practice. That’s more than 1,000 out of 100,000 patients benefitting from early preventative care before a condition develops or progresses and requires more expensive care in the long term.

Forward-thinking health systems across the country are incorporating population genomics programs into clinical care to identify risk earlier for patients, prevent or mitigate serious diseases for our communities, and tackle the health disparities that remain so prevalent across our country.

I’m proud that MUSC is leading our nation into a future of more personalized care, better patient outcomes, and healthier communities for all – and I hope health systems in St. Louis join us.