Montana

Genetic Testing Can Help Identify Best Mental Health Meds

New University of Montana institute may help health care providers determine how patients respond to medications before they are prescribed

By Cameron Evans

MISSOULA — Health care providers in Montana may soon be able to determine how patients will respond to medications before they are prescribed.

That would be accomplished by analyzing patients’ genetic makeup, with help from the new L.S. Skaggs Institute for Health Innovation (SIHI) in the University of Montana’s College of Health.

The new institute will serve as a statewide hub for health education and research, with a focus on helping increase Montanans’ access to pharmacogenetics — a form of precision medicine that uses a patient’s genetic profile to help choose the most effective medications.

Erica Woodahl, a professor at the UM Skaggs School of Pharmacy, has been studying pharmacogenetics for almost 15 years. She’s excited to be able to take her research from the lab to the clinic, she said.

The L.S. Skaggs Institute will educate both students in the UM College of Health and providers across the state about the use of pharmacogenetics.

“Pharmacogenetics is a field that is being implemented in the country, but mostly in large academic medical centers and in large metropolitan areas,” Woodahl told the Missoulian. “One of the first goals of this new institute is to offer this to Montanans who otherwise have been left out of this sort of revolution in health care.”

Within the next six months, the institute will begin providing consults on pharmacogenetics to health care providers who are interested in using the genetic testing, Woodahl said. Initially, the institute will focus with pharmacogenetics on the area of mental health.

“Mental health medications can be difficult to optimize for patients and that can be really frustrating for patients and for providers,” Woodahl said. “We hope that using genetic testing in the area of mental health will help us choose the best medication for a patient at the get-go.”

The institute’s work will also focus on improving barriers to access of care for rural and tribal communities by providing pharmacogenetic consultations via telehealth.

“As we think about our provider shortages across the state of Montana, I think this is a cool, creative way to train students and get them ready to provide that care,” said Hayley Blackburn, an assistant professor at the UM Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

It’s also a timely opportunity to train students in the area of telehealth after the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a push for virtual health care, Blackburn said.

Woodahl eventually hopes to expand the institute to include other health professions within the College of Health, and to outside disciplines such as the humanities to think about equity and improved access to groups that have historically lacked access to health care innovations, she said.

The institute was started by a donation from the ALSAM Foundation, an organization founded by L.S. and Aline W. Skaggs, and has also received an undisclosed amount from the UM Foundation. Going forward, it will be funded through private and public funds, Woodahl said.

In addition to training and educating students and providers, the institute will support research by UM doctoral students on ways to address health care disparities.

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