Guest Commentary

University of Missouri brings a bold new generation of precision health care

New university system President Mun Choi receives warm welcome at UMKC

The University of Missouri System President-designate Mun Choi received a warm welcome on his first visit to Kansas City during a welcome rally in 2017 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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The University of Missouri System President-designate Mun Choi received a warm welcome on his first visit to Kansas City during a welcome rally in 2017 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The University of Missouri System confers more than 18,000 degrees and certificates annually to students who carry a common value: Be bold and make an impact. Don’t just live in the world — transform it to benefit others.

At the University of Missouri, bold and transformational ambitions are not only instilled into our students. They are the driving force behind our institutions that are dedicated to improving the lives of Missourians. There is no better example of this philosophy than our newly launched NextGen Precision Health Initiative, which aims to bring our state to the forefront of advances in health care. Precision health is in essence the ability to predict, prevent and treat diseases using the most advanced diagnostics and analytic tools.

On June 21, we broke ground on the NextGen Precision Health Institute, a central facility at Mizzou that will support the initiative across the system’s four universities and health care system. This 268,000-square-foot facility will open in the fall of 2021 and feature the latest in diagnostic instrumentation and predictive analytical tools. It will bring together some of the nation’s best researchers, clinicians and industry partners to perform lifesaving research in cancer, stroke, muscular dystrophy, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other challenging conditions.

But we aren’t waiting for the building to be constructed. In the first of what we hope will be many exciting developments, on July 12 we announced an alliance with Siemens Healthineers that will begin transforming the delivery of care across the state by connecting patients and their doctors with the latest innovations in diagnostic and therapeutic equipment, educational and training resources, and digital health solutions.

The initiative is also already underway in the bold work of researchers like physician Dongsheng Duan at Mizzou, who is advancing promising gene therapy treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe type of the degenerative disease that eventually makes walking impossible in many children and most often leads to an early death. For the many families waiting for breakthrough treatments, this type of research represents hope, and it’s exactly what will continue to expand and flourish under the NextGen Initiative.

No one needs to explain the importance of this work to Robert McDonald, a practicing ear, nose, and throat specialist with Mizzou’s School of Medicine. McDonald’s youngest child, Mark, was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. McDonald and Duan have forged a friendship as they seek the common goal of an effective treatment, and together they represent the path from research to clinical applications that this initiative will accelerate.

The NextGen Initiative brings people and ideas together in many different ways. As a system-wide initiative, work from all four universities within the UM System — as well as our health system — will be critical to its success. At University of Missouri-Kansas City, John Spertus and his colleagues are making great strides in heart disease treatment by using big data to match the best treatments to patients based on genetics, environmental influences and lifestyles. Addiction research at University of Missouri-St. Louis by Rachel Winograd is slowing the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths across the state. And, in a partnership with the U.S. Army, Jie Huang and his colleagues at Missouri University of Science and Technology are developing wearable technologies that protect against traumatic brain injury suffered by our soldiers on the front lines. These projects and many others are transforming lives by translating research into tangible solutions for the benefit of Missourians.

The Missouri legislature and Gov. Mike Parson have also been strong supporters of this important initiative. The 2019 state budget included $10 million in funding with strong bipartisan support. At the federal level, we hope to receive as much as $65 million from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to support collaborative research through the NextGen Precision Health Initiative that addresses veterans’ welfare.

At the University of Missouri System, we are creating the future of precision health. Through hard work, we transform lives, and in doing so, transform the world. That’s why when I tell students to go out and reshape the world around them, I’m not talking about an abstract concept. I know it can be done. At the University of Missouri System, we’re doing it right now.

Mun Choi is president of the University of Missouri System.