Student Success | 3/24/2023

A Lesson in Empathy for Precision Medicine Graduate Certificate Students

Sarah Das

Sarah Das

Students learn first-hand what it’s like to go through the genetic testing process.

Graduate student Sarah Das eagerly opened a small package that had just arrived in the mail. Inside was a genetic testing kit. She meticulously read the instructions, swabbed her cheek, placed the sample in a test tube, and sent it off for processing. Then she waited.

“I was anxious,” said Das. “It took about a week until the results were ready. It really opened my eyes to what patients go through.”

A Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) student at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), Das took the test as a learning exercise while earning a Precision Medicine Graduate Certificate to bolster her credentials. Students in the certificate program – designed for health and life sciences professionals – are encouraged to put themselves in the shoes of the patients they may encounter in the future. It’s a new era of medicine, and information in our genomes can now be used to customize treatment plans and care. In addition to educating students about relevant scientific and technological developments, faculty members strive to cultivate empathy, keeping the patient experience in focus.

“I now have a better understanding of how the patient might be feeling and the fear that they might be experiencing,” said Das. “If I can help them navigate how scared they’re feeling, then, as a provider, I might be able to gain their trust and really help them along their journey to feeling better.”

Das took a special kind of genetics test called a pharmacogenomic test, which shows how people would likely metabolize or respond to a drug based on their genetics. Healthcare professionals can use pharmacogenomic testing to maximize the likelihood of efficacy and minimize the likelihood of adverse effects from specific drugs.

Clinical pharmacogenomics is a powerful new field. And it’s the focus of an entire course in the certificate program that’s taught by Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice Roseann S. Donnelly (Gammal), PharmD, BCPS. The at-home test is part of her curriculum. Not only does the student testing foster empathy, but it also makes the learning experience more personal, which can help with knowledge retention and promote a deeper understanding of the material.

“Pharmacogenomic testing has a broad array of applications across diverse specialty areas, and its use is increasing in clinical practice,” she said. “For example, in the field of oncology, there is growing interest in genomics to understand the genetics of tumors and tumor cell DNA, to accelerate the shift from general chemotherapy to targeted chemotherapy. We also see interest in pharmacogenomics within the biopharmaceutical industry, which can leverage genetics to identify subsets of patients who may experience severe adverse effects to certain drugs in development, or identify a population of patients most likely to respond to a given treatment.”

Each person metabolizes a drug or substance differently. If an individual is a fast metabolizer of a drug that is activated through a certain enzyme pathway, she could effectively overdose from what is a typical dose for most people. For example, individuals who have extra functional copies of the CYP2D6 gene are “ultrarapid metabolizers” of codeine, converting it into morphine more rapidly. This means that at therapeutic doses of codeine, or typical doses, “ultrarapid metabolizers” may experience the symptoms of morphine overdose, which in some instances can be fatal.

Given the critical role that genetics plays in drug metabolism, and increased consumer awareness and adoption of at-home genetic testing kits, it is now more important than ever for pharmacists and other healthcare professionals to be ready to respond to patients’ questions and genetic test results with expertise and compassion.

Meghan McNulty, PharmD ’23, feels prepared after Dr. Donnelly’s course. She found the testing experience – and a subsequent reflection exercise – especially valuable.

“We got to live through what we were learning,” she said. “I’m ready to have deep conversations about genetic test results with patients. I’ve thought a lot about connections and context. Genetics doesn’t just affect the one person, it informs everyone connected to them.”

Mastery of clinical pharmacogenomics and precision medicine can also expand professional opportunities. For example, Das gave a presentation on precision medicine during a fellowship interview and was approached by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employee afterwards.

“We ended up having a follow-up meeting about career paths in the FDA and how I could potentially work on genomic testing,” she said.

Katarena Nalbandian, PharmD ’23, agrees that the certificate program opens doors. “The Precision Medicine Graduate Certificate allows you to dive deep and learn about genetics at a new level,” she said. “I can now speak with the MDs and PhDs on a team as well as others and provide a unique perspective and knowledge.”

The Precision Medicine Graduate Certificate is designed specifically for healthcare and life sciences professionals. Offered entirely online, this 9-credit program integrates cutting-edge clinical information, patient interviews, and case studies – in addition to experiential learning – to make for a practical and engaging experience.