UA Health Sciences, Banner Health Partner on Largest NIH Award in Arizona History

By:
Danielle Gartner,

The University of Arizona Health Sciences and Banner Health received a $9 million award from the National Institutes of Health in April for the All of Us Research Program, which may total as much as $60 million over five years, representing the largest NIH award in Arizona history. 

The award is tied to a larger effort, which launched May 6, to enroll 1 million or more participants across the nation. 

The UA and Banner were among the first organizations selected by the NIH to join the All of Us Research Program. The partnership is ushering in a new era of academic medicine as it helps build one of the world’s largest and most diverse data sets for precision health research.

Led locally by principal investigators Akinlolu Ojo, M.D., Ph.D., MBA; Eric Reiman, M.D.; and Andreas Theodorou, M.D., FCCM, FAAP, the All of Us Research Program seeks to improve treatment and prevention strategies based on people’s individual differences in lifestyle, environment and genetics. It is a landmark effort to accelerate research and improve health through personalized (or precision) medicine, health care tailored to each individual person. 

Dr. Andreas “Andy” Theodorou has intermittently cared for patient, Ariana, for over 10 years. Theodorou has a special bond with his patients and families, which drives his passion for clinical research. / Kris Hanning photo

The All of Us Research Program’s goals are personal for Theodorou, a pediatric critical care physician who, in addition to serving as principal investigator of the UA-Banner Health All of Us Research Program, is chief education officer for Banner – University Medicine. 

Theodorou’s older sister was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at 47 and suffered from severe side effects rather than benefitting from the most advanced cancer treatments she was given. Ultimately, she succumbed to the disease. 

Theodorou was left with many questions about her care after her death. Why was she diagnosed so late? Why were better treatment options not available? What can his family members, who may have similar biology, do to prevent this from happening? 

“We all have similar questions and experiences as doctors, brothers, parents and spouses. My personal wish for the All of Us Research Program is that answers to questions like these can be discovered so that people like my sister, people like your mother, the children I care for and millions more could have better lives, enjoy better outcomes and a have a better chance of avoiding disease,” Theodorou says. 

To understand both health and disease, enrollment is open to individuals of all health statuses. Unlike a research study focused on a specific disease, All of Us will serve as a national research resource to inform thousands of studies covering a wide range of health conditions.

“The All of Us Research Program will change the way we do research. Participants will be partners in research, not subjects, and will have access to a wide range of study results. What we’re doing with the All of Us Research Program is intersecting with other fundamental changes in medicine and research to empower Americans to live healthier lives,” says Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIH.  

Dr. Irma Ramos, associate professor of Health Promotion Sciences, and Elvia Lopez, senior program coordinator and promotora. / Chris Richards photo

Creating more than 100 new full-time positions across the state, a talented group of clinical research and community outreach professionals has been hired at the UA and Banner. Their primary goal is to ensure more than half of the participants come from populations historically underrepresented in biomedical research. 

'For example, to engage, recruit, enroll and retain Hispanic partners and communities, the program employs research promotoras, community health workers essential for the task. 

“Promotoras are patient advocates, bridging the gap between their community and the health care system,” said Irma Ramos, M.D., MPH, director of the Promotoras Program and an associate professor at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

“Promotoras give a voice to those who would not have one otherwise,” says Ramos, who has worked with promotoras in several states for the past 20 years.

“Many community members avoid medical visits because they lack insurance coverage, transportation or have language and trust barriers,” explains Elvia Lopez, senior program coordinator and a certified community health worker with the All of Us Research Program.

“When patients work with promotoras, many of the barriers to health care access are broken down and help to make much-needed resources accessible to disadvantaged individuals so they can obtain the care they need.” 

“The strong partnership between the University of Arizona and Banner Health is transforming health care in our state and region and establishing a new paradigm for precision medicine,” says UA President Robert C. Robbins. “This landmark research effort aims to improve health outcomes, fuel development of new treatments for disease, and catalyze a new era of evidence-based, precise preventive care and medical treatment options. We are committing to ensuring the program reflects and best serves our diverse population.”

The program is seeking volunteers willing to complete electronic surveys, share information about their health history and lifestyle habits, and provide access to their electronic health records. Some participants also may be asked to visit a local partner site to provide physical measurements and blood and urine samples. Numerous safeguards are in place to minimize potential risks to data security and participant privacy. 

To learn more, visit AllofUsAz.org or call 1-877-268-2684 (877-AOU-AOU4).