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To Improve Healthcare for 'All of Us', NIH Research Program Visits NMSU

Oct 16, 2019

"One size fits all" works for Halloween costumes, but it’s not the most effective way to treat patients.

That’s why the National Institutes of Health launched All of Us, a program that aims to speed up health research by collecting data from one million adults of all backgrounds.

As part of the initiative, tour manager Angie Gonzalez traveled to New Mexico State University in a baby blue RV. She said All of Us aims to improve healthcare for future generations by taking a personalized approach to treating and preventing disease. It’s called “precision medicine.”

“A perfect example is prescription eyewear because those are made precisely for you. Your prescription is for you, not me. We wouldn’t want to wake up tomorrow and switch eyeglasses because yours are made for you and mine are made for me," Gonzalez said. "Same goes with prosthetic limbs. Both prescription eyewear and prosthetic limbs are made a little different for each user. So, imagine if we can apply that concept to our whole body and all of our health."

Gonzalez said precision medicine accounts for differences in lifestyle, environment and genetics to identify the most effective approach–and she noted minority populations have been historically underrepresented in clinical trials.

Gonzalez added her half-Cuban, half-Puerto Rican background is part of why she joined the program.

“It gives me an opportunity as a minority and as an underrepresented community as a female and as a Hispanic, part of the Hispanic population to have a voice in research. So, for me personally that was one of the reasons I joined. Another reason I joined is because multiple sclerosis runs in my family, in my immediate family and I know that if the research doesn’t get done, the cycle will only continue," Gonzalez said.

LaVince Cooper, a civil engineering freshman at New Mexico State University, immerses himself in virtual reality as All of Us Tour Manager Angie Gonzalez monitors his progress toward completing motor skill-related tasks.
Credit Michael Hernandez

Along with facts on the program, the mobile exhibit is filled with statistics about health risks to different minority groups. The display also features hands-on activities like virtual reality, where participants simulate using prosthetic limbs to complete tasks.

Wearing a headset, NMSU civil engineering freshman LaVince Cooper tries his virtual hand at watering plants. Cooper said the exhibit taught him about breakthroughs in precision medicine like glasses and prosthetics.

“It was a pretty neat experience. I got to experience how it felt to wear glasses because I’m a little nearsighted," Cooper said. "It was kind of weird to put myself in another person’s point of view and to put on a prosthetic arm. It was difficult at first but then like it just took a while for me to develop the motor skills to be able to complete the task."

To join, volunteers create an account and answer survey questions related to their demographics and medical history.

Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management Junior Evan Stanfield said he enrolled because he thinks it’s important for researchers to work with a database of diverse people.

My mom is a nuclear med technician so she’s worked in the medical field a lot. So, I’ve been around a lot of medical field events and I think it’s important for us to know our medical health and to push for that. I have a twin brother who has different medical needs than I do. So, I think that is important to focus on that. So, to be able to share and give my information to a database that can help others I think it really incredible," Stanfield said.

Alana Holland, an NMSU senior majoring in marketing and philosophy, begins to fill out questions about her medical history and lifestyle as part of the All of Us program.
Credit Michael Hernandez

Participants can choose how much information they want to share, which Gonzalez said is protected and not personally identifiable.

After completing a consent form, Stanfield gave samples of his urine and blood. Gonzalez said those biosamples are sent to the Mayo Clinic for gene mapping.

“They drew my blood, I did a urine test, got my measurements in my waist and my hips, weight, height. So, just the basics. But hopefully in those basics I get to learn more about myself through the app they also have, I found out," Stanfield said. "When I signed up I downloaded it, answered a few more questions. So, I think it’s just, it’s easy and accessible which I think is super important to college students and it’s intriguing because why not?”

The results from Stanfield and many more may help researchers develop new ways to treat cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s–a disease Stanfield said runs in his family.

For Cooper, cancer may be hereditary. While he didn’t take part in the clinical portion, Cooper said other people should get involved to strengthen research about African Americans.

“I would recommend this to other people. I feel like it’s beneficial to me once I found out my results and I found basic little things about why I don’t have freckles. It’s because of my melanin levels and it was interesting to find out that kind of stuff," Cooper said.

With the program set to last for at least 10 years, it may take some time before healthcare becomes tailor-made. But participation is the next step and organizers say they hope the results benefit not only these volunteers­– but all of us.