Joint Research Day Catalyzes Rural Health Collaborations with Marshfield Clinic

A group of people engage in discussion around a table.
More than 20 researchers and support staff from the Marshfield Clinic and University of Wisconsin-Madison gathered to find points of possible research collaboration.

The Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) hosted its inaugural Joint Research Day on May 19, 2023, to foster collaboration between scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute (MCRI). The event focused on subjects of research excellence and areas for continued growth at both institutions. The presentations covered three topics: respiratory diseases and consequences, pharmacogenomics and precision medicine, and collaborative engagement and recruitment.

ICTR’s executive director, Dr. Allan Brasier, noted that “The Marshfield Clinic is an important part of ICTR, because our partnership allows us to reach underserved rural populations. I hope that the conversations at this meeting will stimulate further collaborations.”

The event is part of ICTR’s larger efforts to encourage multi-site collaboration to reach populations across Wisconsin. ICTR is currently offering an MCRI-UW Collaborative Award to fund pilot studies focusing on rural health crises. The eligible studies must be led by co-principal investigators: one from the Marshfield Clinic and the other from UW. Letters of intent for the award are due June 19, 2023, and applications are due July 31, 2023.

The meeting was organized by Dr. Nasia Safdar, associate dean for clinical trials at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Dr. Casper Bendixsen, ICTR director for MCRI.

At the beginning of the day, Bendixsen encouraged attendees to “think about how forthcoming research might apply to rural communities and ‘think outside the aims’ of our current grant so that we can start building above and beyond our current infrastructure.”

Respiratory Diseases and Consequences

A person stands in front of a projector screen that displays a graph.
Dr. Joshua Petrie presented on a prospective cohort study to assess COVID-19 using data gathered by the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute.

Two infectious disease epidemiologists at MCRI presented research related to respiratory infections, including influenza and COVID-19. Dr. Maria Sundaram presented findings on vaccine hesitancy among young adults. Her work focused on subjects who changed their minds and received a vaccine after initially refusing a dose. Dr. Joshua Petrie showcased Marshfield’s work assembling a cohort of volunteers to track incidences of infections and reinfections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From UW, Dr. Jon Temte presented on the Oregon Child Absenteeism due to Respiratory Disease Study (ORCHARDS), an ongoing, 11-year public health and flu study in partnership with the school district of Oregon, Wisconsin. Both Petrie and Temte noted that their data has the potential to help researchers interpret the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pharmacogenomics and Precision Medicine

Researchers at both institutions are pursuing studies in pharmacogenomics, the science of how a person’s genetics affect how they respond to medications. Dr. Mark Burkard presented on efforts by the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board. His research on breast cancer focuses on delivering precision treatments for specific somatic mutations that cause cancer. Burkard studies the specific gene mutations that cause tumors and then determines which drugs can most effectively shut off the mutations to stop the cancer from recurring.

Dr. Emili Leary, a research pharmacist at MCRI’s Center for Precision Medicine Research, gave an overview of pharmacogenomic research at Marshfield, including an alert system that notifies physicians within the health system of drugs that may be effective for particular patients based on personalized medical records. She also spoke about Marshfield’s Pharmacogenomics Certificate Program, which awarded its first certificates in 2018.

Collaborative Engagement and Recruitment

UW and MCRI are both members of the All of Us Wisconsin consortium. Dr. Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, the co-director of the All of Us program at UW, provided context for the initiative, which began in 2015 with the goal of building a database of one million health records for medical research purposes. All of Us Wisconsin has a goal to enroll 100,000 participants.

Farrar-Edwards noted, “While Wisconsin needs more participants from rural backgrounds, we would not have nearly as many rural participants without partners like the Marshfield Clinic.”

Dr. Scott Hebbring of MCRI’s Center for Precision Medicine Research presented a demonstration study that utilized the All of Us Researcher Workbench, a cloud-based platform that allows researchers to access and analyze All of Us data. His team was able to create a risk score for cancer-like syndromes associated with telomeropathies, a range of disorders in which the DNA-protein structures capping a person’s chromosomes are shortened. Hebbring noted that his team was able to construct the risk score model within several weeks of work, entirely using data from the All of Us Researcher Workbench, which allowed them to bypass the time-consuming, cost-intensive steps of recruiting research participants and collecting genetic samples.

Hebbring said, “This was far more efficient and far less costly than any study we had ever done before.”