MISSOULA — The University of Montana Skaggs School of Pharmacy recently became the beneficiary of the new L.S. Skaggs Institute for Health and Innovation (SIHI). The SIHI in the UM College of Health will, among other things, focus on the use of pharmacogenetics for the diagnosis and treatment of health issues as well as a center for health education and research in the state. The institute will also support research by UM doctoral students on ways to address health care disparities.
Pharmacogenomics is the study of how a person’s unique genetic makeup (genome) influences his or her response to medications. Its long-term goal is to help doctors select the drugs and doses best suited for each person.
UM Skaggs School of Pharmacy professor Dr. Erica Woodahl will be heading up the SIHI with assistant professor Hayley Blackburn.
“We are really excited about this opportunity,” Woodahl said, adding that the idea has been in the works for a bit more than two years. “This is just beginning.”
Dr. Woodahl has essentially devoted her career to pharmacogenetics research. She has been at the University of Montana for more than 14 years; prior to that was nine years of post-doctorate research elsewhere. In that time, she has come to the junction where the rubber meets the road.
“Twenty years ago, a hundred percent of my time was spent in the lab,” Woodahl said. “Now it’s so exciting to see that pharmacogenetics is being used in big hospitals (in America).”
One of the mile markers along her journey has been the University of Montana Skaggs School of Pharmacy’s more than 10 years of pharmacogenetics work with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Health Department.
“Pharmacogenetics was not ready for primetime when we partnered with the Tribal Health,” Woodahl said. “However, Dr. (Leanna) Muzquiz saw the potential of the future use of pharmacogenetics in the medical field.”
That pretty much sealed the deal. They got the blessing of the Tribal Council, underwent an Institutional Review Board to ensure protection for research participants, established a Community Pharmacogenetics Advisory Council comprised of various representatives from the tribal community including present and former Tribal Council members and representatives from the two culture committees that holds monthly meetings, and routinely updates the Tribal Council of research progress.
For quite years now Woodahl has been researching how Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal members’ genetic makeup can be used to diagnose and treat medical issues. And she is looking forward to being able to work more on the educational front the with THD and Salish Kootenai College under the provisions of the SIHI.
Woodahl said pharmacogenetics is being used more and more at large urban areas with comprehensive medical institutions and hospitals. And it is gaining inroads in Montana but the rural nature of the state hampers the comprehensive nature of healthcare. However, a component of the new Institute is the area of telehealth, which has gained traction due to the pandemic. That technology will help in the provision of comprehensive healthcare that includes pharmacogenetics in rural underserved areas that includes American Indian reservations and urban communities.
“Telehealth is here to stay,” Woodahl said. “We will be training students to be comfortable in the discipline — how to work as team with a patient. This is where medicine is going.”
Besides using pharmacogenetics to diagnose and treat the physical health, it can be also used to treat mental health issues. Woodahl said it often takes valuable time to find the right combination of medication and dosage to alleviate the issue.
A major focus of the educational outreach effort will be for existing healthcare providers.
In the near future, by the waning days of summer, the institute will begin providing consults on pharmacogenetics to healthcare providers interested in using the genetic testing. To begin with, the Institute will focus with pharmacogenetics on the area of mental health.
“Many times, it’s trial and error to get a patient stable and that can go on for months,” Woodahl said. “Mental health has come to the forefront of pharmacogenetics when it comes to identifying the proper dosage from the get-go. It is one of the areas where pharmacogenetics has been useful.”
The seed for the Institute was a donation from the ALSAM Foundation, an organization founded by L.S. and Aline W. Skaggs. It also was a beneficiary of funds from the UM Foundation. Funding will continue through private and public funds.