U lands $51 million grant to aid flow of patient info

The University plans to develop a vast electronic records-sharing network.
  • Lorna Benson
June 15, 2011

The University of Minnesota has been awarded a $51 million federal grant to help doctors and researchers collaborate so they can speed up the process of finding new disease treatments and cures.

The National Institutes of Health grant is the largest single-institution award ever given to the University. Most of the money will be spent in Minnesota on projects designed to beef up the University’s research infrastructure.

One of the University’s top priorities is to create a secure data network so providers and insurers can study anonymous patient records across much larger populations of people.

That may not sound like a particularly exciting way to spend $51 million, but Dr. Aaron Friedman, vice president for Health Sciences and dean of the University’s Medical School, said the database will be an incredibly powerful research tool.

“You can learn that there are 22,000 people with ‘condition X’ and they range from an age from four months to 47 years and that’s all off the top of my head. But you cannot learn who they are,” Friedman said.

Providers and insurers have had the ability to study their own patient populations for many years, but the new database could potentially allow them to tap patient disease data throughout the nation.

Dr. Bruce Blazar, director of the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, said academic institutions in other states have also received NIH money to build this type of database.

“If we can extend that and we can go between states and eventually the country, you can imagine how the rapidity of bringing discoveries into clinical practice would be dramatically accelerated,” Blazar said.

The University is already hammering out the privacy agreements that are necessary to convince Minnesota insurers and providers to contribute to the database. Blazar said doctors and health plans appear interested in the idea, as long as information that could identify individual patients is stripped from the database.

In addition to creating the database, the federal grant will also help the University put more resources into clinical trials — which are expensive and time-consuming.

Blazar said part of the money will be spent on a website that will make it easier for community doctors to track the clinical trials that their patients are participating in at the University. The hope is that those doctors may then be more inclined to help recruit other patients to the studies.

“We also need to buy in as a community for what the trials are attempting to do,” Blazar said. “It’s very hard to participate in something if you’re delivering the care, but you might not have been involved in the creation of the study, or you may not know at the end of the study if it has made a difference.”

The University also wants to make it easier for patients who are interested in participating in clinical trials.

Friedman said the grant could be used to get researchers out into the community where their patients live.

“We can go to places as opposed to patients coming to us to do trials,” Friedman said.

Friedman said there are a number of other institutions that already have what they call “mobile units” to help be able to do clinical trials and to get patient information and to get blood or other patient material that’s necessary to actually perform the trial.

The NIH grant stipulates that the public’s research priorities should also factor more into the University’s work. University researchers have already met with several organizations representing Native American and African American health concerns that could get more research attention as a result of the grant.

The federal grant is not expected to offset any state budget cuts facing the University, since the money is specifically directed to be spent on enhancing clinical research programs.

The University’s Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy referred to the NIH grant as an effort to streamline the research process. Its impact will go beyond the dollar amount, he said.

“Our footprint on the national health scene is really accelerated and advanced by this award,” he said.

And as federal funding has shrunk with the economy, Mulcahy said the $51 million grant will help the University secure more grants in the future.

“It makes us competitive for that ever-decreasing pot of money.”


-Minnesota Daily reporter Kyle Potter contributed to this story.

-Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in the Twin Cities on 91.1 FM or online at MPRnews.org

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