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Precision health perspectives

Leslie Thompson discusses how UCI’s collaborative approach can help usher in the next great advancement in healthcare

July 11, 2022
Precision health perspectives

“I’ve been involved in many very meaningful research projects in my career, but to be perfectly honest, this is huge for me, as I feel it ultimately can help the families that I so passionately care about,” says Leslie Thompson. Steve Zylius / UCI

In February, UCI launched the Institute for Precision Health, a campus-wide, interdisciplinary endeavor that merges UCI’s powerhouse health sciences, engineering, machine learning, artificial intelligence, clinical genomics and data science capabilities. The objective is to identify, create and deliver the most effective health and wellness strategy for each individual person and, in doing so, confront the linked challenges of health equity and the high cost of care.

IPH will bring a multifaceted, integrated approach to what many call the next great advancement in healthcare. The institute is an ecosystem for collaboration across disciplines that comprises seven areas. Along with co-directing the institute, Leslie Thompson – Donald Bren and Chancellor’s Professor in psychiatry & human behavior and neurobiology & behavior – co-leads the precision omics section, which generates and translates genomic, proteomic and metabolomic research results into clinical applications.

Thompson is among the earliest trailblazers in pursuing personalized treatment strategies for neurodegenerative diseases. Under her co-direction, IPH pushes for understanding the mechanisms for neurodegenerative and other diseases for which there are currently no treatments available. A long-time Anteater, Thompson earned her master’s and Ph.D. from UCI. 

Why is the Institute for Precision Health so important to you?

So far, precision medicine approaches have mostly commonly been used to treat cancer. Clinicians can utilize data-driven approaches to determine whether a given drug would be expected to work in a specific individual. I’ve dedicated my career to studying neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s and ALS. With so many of these diseases, including the more common Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, there is no treatment available that changes the course of the disease, and so many clinical trials have failed to show benefit to patients. Many researchers think the reason there is so little by way of treatment is because we haven’t been able to fully understand the diseases in individuals – that there is not a one-size-fits-all in disease treatment. We need to have ways of understanding diseases in subgroups of patients that incorporates their genetics, environment and other factors that influence health so that we can define diseases better, understand them better and – hopefully – treat them better. That’s one aspect of IPH that really motivates me. 

The capabilities of Institute for Precision Health might allow for better treatments?

Yes. And more. With the resources of IPH, what we can do has broadened significantly. So not only can we use data to understand these diseases and subgroups of patients better, but we can also develop and use state-of-the art analytic tools such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to distinguish individual disease features and or predict the course of disease. The capabilities of IPH through efforts of clinicians who use AI have enabled establishing a scoring system to inform which COVID-19 patients would be predicted to lead to more severe disease and thus greater medical intervention and optimized patient treatment. A critical aspect of healthcare is to understand the needs of the community as well, which is a major component of IPH. A goal is to utilize the infrastructure being developed through IPH to help clinical trials happen much more rapidly with the right cohort of patients, have new ways to evaluate effectiveness of treatments, engage communities and move into a realm of greater partnership with patients and their communities. 

The capacity of UCI’s Collaboratory – the data center of IPH – is key?

Yes. It is extremely challenging to put the various forms of data and information for, say, a given person or a given disease together in one place – one platform – so that researchers, clinicians and other partners can access and work with the data. With UCI’s Collaboratory and our platform provider Syntropy, we can gather not only the de-identified health information that is in the medical record but also relevant genomic or other clinical or research data. The goal is to provide broad benefit to UCI and broad engagement across campus. And really beyond the campus.

Does this feel a little like the launch of the first smart phone, where in the beginning we marveled at the cool features and then, almost immediately, we couldn’t imagine life without it?

I think so. And, you know, we had so many of the components here at UCI that have been brought together – AI tools being developed across campus and the ability to carry out genomics and other “omics,” and then the efforts of the Collaboratory and the platforms that can house data. But while components were there, they hadn’t yet been integrated into that smart phone, so to speak. Now we’re putting the components together and continually improving capabilities. Our vision is to provide a systematic approach to accomplish things we have never been able to do previously. Even seemingly small things like, how do you track one patient without any identifiers and all the information that’s relevant to that patient and their disease? And so much more. 

You’ve been a part of groundbreaking research and have had so many professional accomplishments. How exciting is IPH in comparison to what you’ve already done?

I’ve been involved in many very meaningful research projects in my career, but to be perfectly honest, this is huge for me, as I feel it ultimately can help the families that I so passionately care about. I see this as my whole career in human genetics and studying human disease has led up to IPH.

The vision is right, the opportunity is here, and UCI’s leadership is so supportive of IPH. There is a growing excitement that, yes, we can do something transformative. So, I hope for big things to come out of IPH. Yes, I’m all in.

You mentioned that you believe the work IPH does will benefit people beyond the campus. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I think we’ll see further relationships with industry, with community groups, with other research institutions and clinical entities and – most importantly – with the patients themselves. We are building something that increases our ability to use and integrate data, and that will be useful to so many people and will enable greater health equity.

Do you have any sort of success timeline in mind?

I think most researchers hesitate to think that way because there have been diseases many of us thought we’d have a cure for in 10 years, and 30 years later there isn’t even an effective treatment. But, that said, I do think that the great thing with this is that many of the components have already been initiated and are working and we have incredible opportunities to now integrate efforts and diverse sets of data to inform patient health and disease. I’m confident that there will be immediate goals that IPH will achieve throughout the next year or two. Then there are longer goals that will take five years or 10 years. And even longer-range goals that will be refined as we go.

Do you believe that even in a year or two patients who get care through UCI will feel the effects of IPH?

Yes, absolutely. Patients are already impacted because of IPH’s work with COVID-19. One project involving genomics is to try and pinpoint the diagnosis for patients with a muscle weakness disorder that has defied genetic diagnosis. During this next year, we’ll see if we can find genetic causes of that disorder. And through efforts of the AI groups, there will be development of algorithms to assess effectiveness of tools or treatments recently deployed in the hospital. Those are just a couple examples.

Do you see a day where many diseases are diagnosed quicker and more accurately?

That’s certainly one of our goals. IPH researchers have already developed an AI tool to diagnose stroke much more quickly compared to more standard methods. I suspect IPH will be working on many more tools that function in similar ways.

What does UCI bring to the table that maybe some other institutions don’t?

One big strength is the support from Chancellor Howard Gillman and other campus leaders.  [Vice Chancellor of Health Affairs] Steve Goldstein has led the charge for this institute to become a reality. Also, the fact that we have so much AI, machine learning and artificial intelligence expertise across UCI – along with many acclaimed clinicians and medical researchers. Having an academic medical center certainly presents opportunities that researchers elsewhere might not have where they may have great AI expertise but without a medical center. We also perhaps have a unique focus – health equity – with existing relationships with the community. So, we are distinctive in the fact that we have all the pieces here. UCI is also a uniquely collaborative and nimble institution. We come together and make things happen quickly at UCI. That’s a characteristic of this university that I’ve seen play out during my whole career here.

Will there be opportunities to study Orange County to see, as a community, what kind of impact IPH has?

IPH is engaged in this already, and it is a major goal moving forward.

And the way you’re able to use data is special?

Yes. Quite often researchers have pulled information from the medical records that is structured data, that has an important role in research that has been facilitated at UCI through efforts of the Collaboratory. However, one of the things that is unusual about the platform is that there will be ways to capture all the structured and unstructured data. This is a big deal.

Everything needs funding, though. What’s happening in that regard?

Yes, great question. Certainly, one of the biggest challenges for any endeavor is raising money. Through support by UCI, we have the funds to launch IPH efforts, but there will need to be extensive fundraising and plenty of grant writing. Philanthropy will be integral to our success and visionaries to relay the excitement about our mission.

If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.eduPublicly launched on October 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. UCI Health Affairs plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting

About UCI Institute for Precision Health: Founded in February 2022, the Institute for Precision Health (IPH) is a multifaceted, integrated ecosystem for collaboration that maximizes the collective knowledge of patient data sets and the power of computer algorithms, predictive modeling and AI. IPH marries UCI’s powerhouse health sciences, engineering, machine learning, artificial intelligence, clinical genomics and data science capabilities to deliver the most effective health and wellness strategy for each individual person and, in doing so, confronts the linked challenges of health equity and the high cost of care. IPH is part of UCI Health Affairs, and is co-directed by Tom Andriola, vice chancellor for information, technology and data, and Leslie Thompson, Donald Bren Professor of psychiatry & human behavior and neurobiology & behavior. IPH is a comprised of seven areas: SMART (statistics, machine learning-artificial intelligence), A2IR (applied artificial intelligence research), A3 (applied analytics and artificial intelligence), Precision Omics (fosters translation of genomic, proteomic,  and metabolomic research findings into clinical applications), Collaboratory for Health & Wellness (provides the ecosystem that fosters collaboration across disciplines through the integration of health-related data sources), Deployable Equity (engages community stakeholders and health-equity groups to create solutions that narrow the disparities gap in the health and wellbeing of underserved and at-risk populations.) and Education and Training (brings data-centric education to students and healthcare practitioners so they can practice at the top of their licenses).