WED AM News: Researchers aim to improve rare disease care through Epic database; Evers wants to boost arts funding for UW System

— Epic’s research division aims to improve treatments for rare diseases through a large database drawing from millions of patients’ electronic health records. 

Panelists representing the Verona-based company discussed Epic’s rapidly growing Cosmos database during a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon held yesterday in Madison. Dr. Jackie Gerhart, vice president for clinical informatics at Epic, discussed a “Look-Alikes” software application being developed to help guide doctors’ treatment of patients with very rare conditions. 

By searching the database containing health information from more than 163 million people, physicians could match their current patient with others who may have the same disease to gain insights, she explained. Without learning any identifying information about those other patients, they could contact their doctors to get advice on testing, medications and more. 

“It’s not just looking at what drugs might work — although that’s true and it’s definitely meant for personalized medicine — this is the future of really trying to personalize and even hopefully speed up the ability for you to respond,” she said, referring to how doctors treat their patients. 

Caleb Cox, lead data scientist for Epic Research, shared a personal story about his father’s medical journey to illustrate the potential impact of Cosmos. He said he was only able to get treatment for a rare heart condition due to a series of coincidences that led him to find one of the few specialists in the world studying that specific disease. 

“There’s a lot of ‘happened to’ in that story,” he said. “The idea behind Look-Alikes is we can make that a lot less circumstantial.” 

Gerhart said Cosmos broadly supports “evidence-based medicine findings.” She said only 10 to 20 percent of medicine is “truly evidence-based” while most decisions are driven by expert consultations or previous practices. 

“Our mission is really to take the real-world evidence and use it for good, and try to get good information out quickly so the public and others can act on it,” she said. 

The database includes patient records from more than 170 health care organizations that use Epic software for digital patient records. Cox noted Cosmos information is not for sale, and has been scrubbed of identifiers for privacy concerns. Participants have to provide their own data in order to use the database and related tools, panelists explained. 

According to Cox, the Cosmos database can help scientists conduct research more quickly and efficiently through the database’s framework, drawing from a much larger pool of information than they would typically have access to. Panelists also stressed that information is much more representative of the diversity of the U.S. population than most research cohorts. 

“You can click a button, and a process that used to take weeks or months and thousands or tens of thousands of dollars is ready for you in like 90 seconds,” Cox said. “It makes it so much faster to be able to do research. And ultimately we expect that this could actually also bring the cost of doing research down.” 

See more on the database here: 

— Gov. Tony Evers says he wants the Legislature to increase funding for arts programs at UW System campuses to attract more workers to the state.

The Dem guv, responding to student questions at a roundtable event yesterday at UW-Milwaukee, said it’ll be a “hard sell” to get the GOP-run Legislature to boost funding for the arts at universities or elsewhere, but it’s important to do so. Companies look to bring operations and their employees to Wisconsin because they know Wisconsin offers a better quality of life, and one indication of that is the state’s arts offerings, Evers added.

“It’s an economic issue,” he said. “Companies aren’t going to move to Wisconsin if they think it’s an art wasteland. It’s not gonna happen.”

He also said his administration did as much with federal pandemic relief funds as possible to keep Wisconsin’s arts alive, but that money is not going to keep things funded long term. The politics of funding arts in Wisconsin are challenging, but holding politicians accountable will help the situation, he said. 

The UW System has requested a $293.6 million increase in general purpose revenue for the 2023-25 biennium.

Evers at the Milwaukee event also said aside from finding money to replace Milwaukee’s roughly 67,000 lead water service lines, he’s worried there won’t be enough workers to get the job done in a reasonable time.

While the federal government provided $79 million to Milwaukee to help the replacement effort, the project will likely cost more. Evers yesterday raised concerns the workforce to replace all those pipes won’t be ready if projects get the funding they need.

“More money is available,” he said. “We will be able to get a good head start on it. I’m a little concerned about the ability for us to have enough human beings to do the work, frankly. Wisconsin’s population is static at best; something we’ve got to work on.”

See more from the event at 

— State property values grew by a record 13.8 percent in 2022, the biggest annual increase in decades, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

That included a 14.9 percent increase in residential properties statewide.

But gross property tax levies approved for calendar year 2022 increased by 1.6 percent, well below the rate of inflation and the smallest increase since 2014.

The combined impact of the increase in property values and the relatively flat levies is property tax rates fell 4.9 percent, continuing their long-running decline. Statewide, gross property tax rates fell from $19.60 per $1,000 of equalized property value to $18.64, the biggest drop since 2005.

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— State health officials are urging residents to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes after identifying the first human case of West Nile virus this year in Wisconsin. 

The Department of Health Services says a Sheboygan County resident has been infected with the virus. That’s after it was reported in two horses and a bird, which were located in Trempealeau, Monroe, and Milwaukee counties.

State Health Officer Paula Tran notes West Nile and other viruses spread by mosquitoes “pose a risk to all Wisconsinites,” especially those with weakened immune systems. 

“This report of the first case of West Nile Virus in a person is a reminder of the continued importance of taking precautions to prevent mosquito bites and the viruses they carry as we move into the fall,” she said in a DHS release. 

While the virus is spread to humans and other animals by infected mosquitoes, it can’t be spread directly between people or animals, according to DHS. The agency recommends avoiding exposure to the insects and eliminating breeding sites for mosquitoes, which often lay their eggs in wet areas like temporary ponds and puddles. 

Human infections have been reported between early summer and fall. But most who get sick from West Nile virus report illness in August and September, according to DHS. 

Since the virus was first found in Wisconsin in 2002 — when 52 cases were seen — annual infections have ranged from one case in 2009 to 57 cases in 2012. While 51 cases were reported in 2017, that number was 33 in 2018, four in 2019, five in 2020 and eight in 2021. 

See more data from DHS: 

See the release: 

— Cellectar Biosciences has been awarded about $2 million in grants from the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute. 

According to the Madison-based company, this funding will support an ongoing Phase 1 study into treatments for children and adolescents with certain types of gliomas, a type of tumor of the brain and spinal cord. 

Company CEO James Caruso says the funding indicates the company’s treatment has “shown encouraging potential in this very difficult to treat patient population.” 

See more at Madison Startups: 


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– Half of state’s soybean crop dropping leaves


– GRAEF switches downtown Green Bay office locations

– See construction progress on DeLong Co.’s $40 million Port Milwaukee facility


– House surfing and living in abandoned buildings, Wisconsin’s rural homeless population is underserved

– Deloitte reveals its annual list of Wisconsin’s largest privately-held companies

– Here’s why Wisconsin gas prices spiked in the last week and what to expect


– State pork leaders looking for producer feedback


– ‘So far, so good’: Biologists welcome stall in carp nearing Lake Michigan

– Report finds Madison falling short of climate goals as mayor calls on Biden to take action

– Joe Parisi seeks $3M to study manure digester to target algae, greenhouse gas emissions


– Dave’s Hot Chicken shares opening details for Milwaukee restaurant


– Vivent Health’s president and CEO resigns after board puts him on leave

– Kenosha County’s Brookside Care Center offers help for certified nursing assistant applicants


– Company seeks $27 million loan from county sales taxes to extend high-speed internet


– FPC Live venue in Milwaukee downtown moves forward in city planning process


– Crews pour concrete at Couture site for incoming public transportation terminal


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