A billionaire philanthropist has donated $25 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide genetic tests for veterans to help tailor their medical treatments and medications.
The VA and Denny Sanford, a South Dakota banker and Air Force Reserve veteran, announced the gift March 12. The money is expected to help up to 250,000 veterans through 2022, starting with those who have received a cancer diagnosis.
According to Sanford Health, the hospital system named for Sanford after he donated $400 million in 2007, the gift will fund the testing program, called Pharmacogenomics Action for Cancer Survivorship, or PHASeR. It aims to use a veteran's DNA to determine personalized treatment and reduce costly adverse drug reactions.
During the announcement of the donation at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the gift will help shape future treatment for all veterans who receive care at VA.
"The pharmacogenetic testing that we are going to be using as a result of Mr. Sanford's generosity is critical for our nation's veterans," Wilkie said. "We are all committed to active engagement with medicine and science ... to bring our veterans the very best care."
Dr. Deepak Voora, with the Duke University School of Medicine's Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, will oversee the program; a pilot is expected to launch at the Durham, N.C. VA Health System later this year.
"As a physician, it's hard to predict exactly how a patient will respond to a medicine," Voora said at the announcement event. "But this pharmacogenetic testing program can change that by indicating how patients might respond to medications before they even take them."
He added that specialized pharmacogenetic testing largely has been out of reach for VA patients due to cost.
The program is expected to be available at 125 sites by 2022. Test will be taken at local VA facilities and processed at a Sanford Health facility in South Dakota. The tests will examine genetic markers to determine how patients tolerate and metabolize different types of drugs, including antidepressants, blood thinners and pain medications.
Sanford Health plans to supplement Sanford's gift with a matching fundraising effort.
"We recognize that our patients who are veterans are coming to us with something special on their mind and in their experiences," Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft said. "This is a natural way for all of us at Sanford Health to give back."
Denny Sanford, 83, made his fortune, estimated by Forbes to be at $2.2 billion, in banking and credit card companies. He said on Fox News Sunday on March 17 that he plans to die broke, having given away his fortune. To date, he has donated $1.6 billion to causes that include health care research and services, neglected children, the University of Minnesota, education, the San Diego Children's Zoo, stem cell and breast cancer research.
"It's a joy to help other people," he told Chris Wallace. "I will die broke. Everything is committed to different organizations."