Commentary

Obama Moves to Extend U.S. Lives. Impossible for Him? Let’s See

After such customary Obama administration un-American news as “US Will No Longer Report Guantanamo Hunger Strikes” (ABC News/AP, December 4) there suddenly appeared in the New York Times that the President was announcing “a major biomedical research initiative, including plans to collect genetic data on one million Americans so scientists could develop drugs and treatment tailored to the characteristic of individual patients” (“US to Collect Genetic Data to Home Care”, New York Times, Jan. 31, 2015).

Although I have been continually critical of Obama, what drew me to this story was the name of the reporter, Robert Pear, who broke the story at the bottom of page 12 of the Times (a story that should have been on the front page).

For years, I have learned more about health care from Robert Pear than from any other journalist.

Here he tells us that precision medicine, also known as personalized or individualized medicine, “gives us one of the greatest opportunities for new breakthroughs that we have ever seen,” as Obama declared at a White House event attended by patients’ advocates, researchers and bio-technology company executives.”

Among the listeners was, yes, a Republican: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee “and chairman of the Senate health committee, who said he intended to work with the president on the issue.”

And, for once, Obama made immediate sense: “If we’re born with a particular disease or a particular genetic makeup that makes us more vulnerable to something, that’s not our destiny, that’s not our fate.”

Robert Pear shows the way ahead: “Federal officials described the project as a research consortium that would collect information from large numbers of people.

“The data could include medical records, laboratory test results, profiles of patients’ genes, and information about their diet, tobacco use, lifestyle and environment.”

And dig this quote from Dr. Baselga, chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York:

“We dreamed of this. We can mine the genome of tumors from our patients, identify mutations responsible for the tumors, and accelerate improvements in patient care.”

Robert Pear lists, among Obama’s structural plans, his intent “to seek $10 million for the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates technology used to analyze DNA. Such analysis can identify millions of genetic variants, providing information that would help diagnose or treat some diseases, officials said.”

Moreover, he continued, “since the 1980s, researchers have been collecting and storing human tissue and other biological specimens in repositories known as biobanks.”

He then brought in Jo Handelsman, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who emphasized:

“We do not envision this as being a biobank, which would suggest a single repository for all the data or all the samples. There are existing cohorts around the country that have already been started and are rich sources of data. The challenge in this initiative is to link them together and fill in the parts.”

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, “said the initiative was feasible because of the advances in genetics and cell biology, the use of electronic medical records, significant increases in computing power and a sharp decline in the past 15 years in the cost of a laboratory technique known as DNA sequencing. The technique is used to investigate the function of genes and to analyze the full set of a person’s genes — the genome.”

To this vital point, she added the striking addition that “it cost us $400 million for that first genome. Now a genome can be sequenced for a cost approximating $1,000.”

To further increase my excitement at this potential extension of American lifespans, Robert Pear concluded with Nancy A. Brown, the chief executive of the American Heart Association, saying that, to him, “patients with heart disease, like those with cancer, could benefit from precision medicine.”

Pear writes that Brown’s organization is “compiling a database of genetic information. The data, she said, could help doctors tailor treatments for heart failure of abnormal heart rhythms, or find the right combination of drugs to lower blood pressure.”

My personal interest in health care includes, not surprisingly, my becoming 90 next June as I continue to make deadlines while also working on a new book. But this potential for greatly improving and lengthening American lives is also focusing my attention on my grandchildren and their progeny.

This, if it becomes part of real American life, is also for future generations, and so I shall be closely following the reporting of Robert Pearl and other journalists on precision individualized medicine.

President Obama’s key role in alerting us to this does not, of course, obviate the many reasons he should be impeached — with due process — for continuing high crimes against our Constitution.

But if he is forced to exit, he will have merited gratitude for awakening us to the possibilities of precision individualized medicine.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.