What is personalized medicine? How has personalized medicine changed over the years? When will medical professionals integrate personalized medicine into mainstream care? In this article, we explore the world of personalized medicine and its life-saving potential.
Personalized medicine is not a new concept.
In fact, the principle dates back to Ancient Greece. The works of Hippocrates include an assessment of the “four humors” (phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile) to deduce the most appropriate treatment, not just for the disease, but taking into account the unique physiology of the patient.
Today, thanks to scientific and technological breakthroughs in the last 20 years, our understanding of genes and their relationship to health and disease has increased exponentially. This has led to huge growth in personalized medicine, providing new approaches to treating life-threatening diseases.
The cost of personalized medicine is falling sharply.
When the Human Genome Project first sequenced the human genome at the beginning of the 21st century, it cost around $2.7 billion. This groundbreaking research project involved more than a decade of work by some of the world’s leading scientists, painstakingly analyzing vast amounts of data.
Advancements in gene sequencing technology led to the computerization of much of this process, meaning that scientists can sequence a human genome today much more quickly, incurring far less cost. Today, the fastest technology can sequence a whole genome in about an hour, for as little as $1,000. One company recently unveiled plans for a machine that may soon facilitate whole genome sequencing for as little as $100.
Personalized medicine could revolutionize transplantation.
Christiaan Neethling Barnard carried out the first human-to-human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1967. Today, surgeons carry out around 3,700 to 3,800 heart transplants internationally each year. In the U.S, more adult heart transplants take place at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, than any other hospital.
Unfortunately, waiting lists for heart transplants tend to be long, with most patients waiting for more than six months. With a life-threatening condition like heart disease, such a delay can mean the difference between life and death. There simply are not enough donors to keep up with demand.
But what if we eliminated the need for organ donors? What if we could grow our own organs, in the lab? This may sound like a plot for some far-fetched sci-fi movie, but this is what the world’s leading scientists are working on right now, and they are achieving some promising results.
For example, tissue engineering uses a combination of biological cells and scaffolds to generate new biological tissue. Scientists use tissue engineering to grow skin, muscle, cartilage, bone, and even whole bladders in the laboratory.
The practice involves using progenitor, or stem cells, to grow new tissue. Though tissue engineering only plays a small role in patient treatment, it holds great potential. It could effectively provide a solution to organ waiting lists and reduce the incidence of organ rejection at the same time, since a patient’s own cells can be used to grow the organ.
Though regenerative medicine (the broader field that tissue engineering falls under) is still in the formative stages, several patients have received synthetically generated tissue. In Europe, a young woman’s failing trachea was successfully replaced with a new one generated from her own stem cells—marking the world’s first whole-organ, tissue-engineered transplant. Surgeon Paulo Macchiarini conducted the procedure in Barcelona in 2008, effectively saving the life of the 30-year-old mother.
Personalized medicine is already being made available to the general public.
The UK provides a prominent example of the increasing visibility of personalized medicine. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) recently announced plans to begin transitioning away from the “one size fits all” medical approach, shifting toward tailormade treatments to manage patient health, in a bid to improve both individual outcomes and the health of the British public as a whole.
The NHS recently began a public information campaign to help British citizens better understand the concept of personalized medicine. The NHS-backed 100,000 Genomes Project is a groundbreaking initiative uniting the worlds of medicine, science, and technology, in an effort to reveal more about the human genome and pave the way for more effective treatment of cancer and rare genetic diseases.
One area where understanding of a person’s unique genetic makeup could prove particularly beneficial is in the prescription of certain medicines. The NHS attributes 1 in 15 UK hospital admissions to adverse drug reactions. With greater access to the unique genetic makeup of patients, medical practitioners hope to avoid these adverse reactions, reducing the burden on accident and emergency services while at the same time improving individual patient outcomes.
Similarly, in the United States, personalized medicine is becoming more available. Health insurance companies recognize the potential of precision medicine in reducing costs and improving outcomes, and experts anticipate it will play an integral role in the shift from generic approaches to tailormade treatment.
One field where personalized medicine generates a great deal of excitement is oncology. According to a 2014 report by the Personalized Medicine Coalition, many cancers have genetic components—for example, 73% of melanoma patients had tumors that were driven by genetic mutations. Scientists could potentially develop new drugs that target these specific mutations.
Overall, the promise of personalized medicine lies in its potential to finally lead humanity beyond the “trial and error” approach to health care that has dominated the field for millennia. The result could be less money and time wasted on ineffective treatments, and more lives saved.