SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health is launching an initiative with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide free genetic testing to veterans, with a focus on avoiding adverse reactions to medications.

The effort, which will begin this year as a pilot project in Durham, North Carolina, is supported by a $25 million donation by T. Denny Sanford, the namesake benefactor of Sanford Health, as well as matching fundraising from Sanford Health.

The program will initially enroll cancer survivors but will eventually expand to 250,000 military veterans at 125 sites by 2020, including medical centers in Fargo and Sioux Falls.

“This will be the largest pharmacogenetic testing effort in the country by orders of magnitude,” said Dr. Deepak Voora, who is affiliated with the VA in Durham and Center for Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine.

“We have the potential to improve patient care for each veteran we test, and the scale of the effort will allow us to see trends and conduct research that could improve medical care for the entire population,” Voora added in a statement.

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The genetic testing will help to guide clinical decisions for a variety of medications, including those for cardiovascular disease, mental health and pain management.

Pharmacogenetic testing — genetic testing to determine what drugs and dosages work best for individual patients — helps to increase therapeutic value of medications and to avoid adverse reactions, said Dr. Allison Suttle, Sanford’s chief medical officer.

“It’s kind of like knowing your allergies before you take a medication,” she said.

The initial focus on cancer survivors can help with avoiding adverse reactions to chemotherapy, Suttle said.

“You can get toxic levels if you don’t know how your body metabolizes the drug,” she said. The testing can also determine which anti-nausea medications will work best.

Information from the testing will help guide doctors’ clinical decisions, Suttle said. “It allows that physician to do a better job from the start,” she said.

VA plans call for expanding the pharmacogenetic testing beyond cancer patients. “I think the VA is going to very rapidly expand beyond cancer patients," Suttle said.

Sanford wanted to help extend some of the services its patients receive through its Imaginetics program. Sanford will process the tests at its Imaginetics center at its main Sioux Falls medical campus.

“We have seen firsthand how this testing can positively influence patient care,” Kelby Krabbenhoft, Sanford’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Through the generosity of Mr. Sanford, we are proud to join the VA to make it available to our nation’s heroes.”

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised the partnership, part of what he called efforts to "deliver world class health care."

“This testing will help providers at the VA prescribe the most appropriate medications at the right doses,” he said.