Imagine if treating an illness or condition you’re suffering from were as easy as going to the doctor and receiving a pill perfectly suited to your genetic makeup? Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Instead, we are diagnosed based on a set of conditions or symptoms and prescribed a generic medication designed for the masses. When we are prescribed a statin to reduce cholesterol level, it really doesn’t account for how it may not be the best choice for our genetic make-up.
For most people, their experience with healthcare has been limited to generic treatments for shared conditions. However, just because people may share a condition does not mean that they will all respond to treatment in the same way. If one looks at the clinical data for these drugs, even as little as 10-20% responders (80-90% non-responders) can get drugs approved. Precision medicine, also commonly referred to as personalized medicine, may finally address the disparity in healthcare that groups patients together as one and the same. With precision medicine, the idea of receiving a medication uniquely suited to your genetic makeup may not be so far-fetched.
The National Institutes of Health defines precision medicine as, “an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.” So what, exactly, does precision medicine look like in its current state? Most notably, it is making headway in cancer treatments. For example, doctors treating lung cancer patients are able to study the genetic mutations of cancer cells in order to determine the precision medicine that will be the most effective for each patient. Although mass-produced, treatments are administered based on a patient’s specific type of mutation. Even more specialized are “n of 1” treatments, meaning they are developed one at a time for individual patients.
There are many limitations to precision medicine, however, which cannot be ignored if we are analyzing its potential to revolutionize the future of disease treatment. Patient privacy, treatment costs, and the complexity of analyzing the human genome for each patient pose a major challenge to our ability to bring Precision Medicine to routine treatments. There is always the concern that genetic data could be used to exclude or discriminate people from medical insurance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is committed to advancing the role of precision medicine with its Precision Medicine Initiative, implemented in 2016 to expedite the treatment approval process.
These roadblocks must be overcome if precision medicines are ever to make their way to patients on the mainstream, but the potential certainly exists. “In theory, personalized medicine could work like Netflix and Amazon,” according to Scientific American. By studying your genetic makeup and medical history, scientists could predict your response to medication just as media and retail services can predict your viewing and purchasing preferences.