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North Shore-LIJ, OPKO alliance will guide patient care with DNA evaluations

North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System headquarters in

North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System headquarters in Manhasset. Credit: North Shore-LIJ Photo

The North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System is making an investment in personalized medicine through an alliance, announced Tuesday, with the multinational pharmaceutical and diagnostics giant OPKO.

As a result of the alliance, North Shore-LIJ and OPKO, which has headquarters in Miami, are forming a limited liability company to be known as Northwell Genomics Alliance.

Through the company, patients will have optional access to personalized care — increasingly referred to as precision medicine — based on data inscribed in an individual’s DNA or other biological specimens. The tests would be used for a specific number of medical conditions and would require patient permission.

Dr. James Crawford, executive director of laboratory services for North Shore-LIJ, said the purpose of the new alliance is to broadly usher in the era of precision medicine by providing patients greater access to potentially lifesaving tests.

“The North Shore-LIJ Health System is racing toward the future as fast as possible,” Crawford said Tuesday.

Others are racing as well.

Hospitals in the greater metropolitan area as well as nationwide have been heavily investing in precision medicine. Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan has established the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, which boasts a $3 million supercomputer; Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, also in Manhattan, added a $550 million tower two years ago devoted to precision medicine.

These institutions, along with North Shore-LIJ, are highlighting the importance of precision medicine as the New York Genome Center, a 4-year-old collaborative enterprise of major regional research institutions, continues an ambitious agenda — searching for the genetic underpinnings of numerous disorders from rare neurological conditions to complex forms of cancer. Those investigations, could produce new forms of screening in the future, experts say.

Screenings and diagnostic testing, however, account for some of the most expensive areas of medicine. But Crawford said North Shore-LIJ — which officially changes its name in January to Northwell Health — will pay for vital screenings when patients’ insurers refuse to foot the bill.

Genomic sequencing — evaluating a patient’s genetic dowry — can run $5,000 and up; screening for breast cancer risk can cost about $3,500. The new alliance, Crawford said, will rely on OPKO’s GeneDx and GenPath divisions as its primary laboratories for genomic testing. Another aspect of the new venture, he said, is evaluating the overall utility and clinical value of the screenings and when best to use them. He said the health care system also will provide genetic counseling for patients who undergo testing.

“This is a very challenging area to navigate,” Crawford said of knowing when testing serves an advantage. “These are expensive tests and there is variable access for patients to these tests, he said, noting that insurers are not always in agreement about their usefulness.

“Some payers are voting with their feet as to whether they view these tests as valuable,” he said.

The new services include a broad range of diagnostic tests and screenings, such as evaluating cancer patients for sensitivity to specific drug therapies. Doctors have long known that some medications work better in some people than in others.

Other tests span a wide gamut and include non-inavsive prenatal screenings; pediatric and postnatal diagnosis; inherited cancer risk evaluations; screening for genetic cardiac abnormalities and testing for neurological disorders, such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, which can run in families.

“We are pleased to be partnering with North Shore-LIJ to leverage our collective expertise, experience and resources in genomics and clinical care to further expand access to targeted treatment options for patients,” said Dr. Marc Grodman, chief executive of OPKO’s BioReference Laboratories division.