Vicki Ellingrod, Pharm.D., BCPP
“Preventing medication side effects and improving our understanding of who will respond best to which medications will help lower overall healthcare costs and improve outcomes for patients.”
Although the medical field has made tremendous progress over the last century in developing therapies that consider the uniqueness of human beings, truly personalized medicine – the ability to finely tailor treatments to match an individual’s genetic makeup, family history, and life circumstances – is still a work in progress.
For reasons that are not always clear, individual responses to medication can vary tremendously. They can also involve unwelcome and potentially life-threatening side effects even as they relieve other symptoms. As head of the Clinical Pharmacogenomics Laboratory, Vicki Ellingrod is devoted to learning how a person’s genomes may influence the way a particular medication, dosage, or drug combination may affect their mind and body – a field called pharmacogenomics – with the goal of improving therapeutic outcomes and reducing adverse effects. Ellingrod investigates genetic variation to determine which people would be best suited for a specific drug, and which people would be at the highest risk for adverse effects, with the goal of being able to better match genetic profiles with the most effective treatments possible.
“One of the major causes of someone being admitted to the hospital is due to a medication side effect. If we can prevent that and optimize who is going to respond the medications, then we can lower overall healthcare costs while creating better results for people who are taking medications,” Ellingrod says.
Even medications that offer enormously positive benefits for people managing conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety can, at the same time, increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. Antipsychotic medications, used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses, can contribute to metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and/or high blood sugar, factors that in turn can lead to serious health risks. A major part of Ellingrod’s research focuses on risk factors for metabolic syndrome for people with schizophrenia.
While the development of improved drugs that avoid such harmful consequences would be one step in the right direction, attention to factors such as diet and exercise can also make a difference in reducing the risk of medication side effects in people with mental illness, and so Ellingrod’s research also looks at the role of diet in alleviating metabolic complications that may arise from medications.
As a pharmacist, Ellingrod brings a unique perspective to research collaborations guided through the Depression Center, and she values being able to help shape the future of psychiatric medication. “Being a pharmacy member is great because I get to network with people who are prescribing these medications and those who are using them on a daily basis,” she says. “Being on that cutting edge and being part of this group from the ground is a really great honor.”
Ellingrod says her goal is that within the next decade health care providers would be able to highly customize pharmaceutical treatments based on an individual’s genetic profile, making the medication component of maintaining mental wellness truly personalized.