Precision Medicine: When ‘One-pill-fits-all’ Doesn’t Fit

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Everybody is unique due to their genetics. Even identical twins do not have completely identical genetic information, as they start accumulating developmental mutations from early stages in the womb. Our uniqueness is the main reason medical professionals often cannot rely on the same medication when trying to treat different people with the same disease.

The Human Genome Project that helped identify, map and sequence all our genes was completed in 2001. Due to advancement in DNA sequencing technology, the cost to sequence a person’s own genome went from $1 billion in 2001 to $600 in recent years. As technologies continue to develop, this price tag may drop to as low as $100 in the near future. Today, researchers can use this information to better target the medicines and therapies we receive to our specific, individual health concerns and genetic makeup.

“Evidence-based medicine,” which means current medical practice that is based on scientific data, has further increase the need for personalized or precision medicine. In other words, when introducing a new drug to treat a disease, researchers and health care providers need to understand how the drug acts in the human body so that they can avoid potential harm.

The medication clopidogrel is a good example. Clopidogrel is used to prevent blood clots in people who have had a heart attack. However, roughly 30% of the population has a gene variant that makes the drug useless, and in these people, taking it can be deadly. If this gene variant is detected early, doctors can prescribe alternative treatments.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative. This initiative encourages scientists, medical professionals, patients and health providers to work together toward the development of personalized care that integrates genetic, environmental and lifestyle information to improve health and treat disease.

The precision medicine model has revolutionized the field of immunotherapy—a form of cancer treatment that uses the immune system’s natural ability to fight cancer cells. One study used genomic testing of cancer cells to match a therapy recommendation to patients. The researchers found that people responded better when they were treated with the therapy matched to their tumor’s genome.

While we celebrate what makes us unique, it’s a comfort to know that scientists are also celebrating our differences in how they choose to treat our health conditions.

Thanh Nga Le is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She is majoring in biology with an emphasis pre-medicine.

Natalya Zinkevich, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She teaches courses related to human anatomy and physiology, health and disease, and vertebrate zoology. Her research primarily focuses on the cardiovascular system.

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