Personalized medicine aims to target the needs of an individual patient, a new way of treating disease that could permanently change the practice of medicine.
What is personalized medicine?
Personalized medicine, also known as precision medicine, is a revolutionary way of treating disease that could permanently change the practice of medicine.
Personalized medicine vs. traditional medicine
A traditional medical approach treats diseases based on the average patient’s experience or needs, as well as the most “typical” form of the disease. Treatments are developed from research that shows the most likely outcomes for the largest group of people. It is sometimes considered a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Personalized medicine, by contrast, targets the needs of an individual. Examining your genetic makeup, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices, as well as the specific traits of your disease, determines your specific needs.
In a traditional approach, a 58-year-old male who smokes and has two parents with lung disease would receive nearly the same treatment for lung cancer as a 28-year-old female who runs marathons and has no history of cancer or lung problems in her family. In a personalized approach, the two treatments would be different, tailored to the genetic makeup and lifestyle of each individual.
The Human Genome Project
The field of precision medicine developed out of the Human Genome Project, which developed a way to map a person’s DNA and determine their individual genetic makeup. With this tool available for understanding the genetic code, scientists have been able to delve into the genetic causes of illness, including the mutations that make diseases different from one person to the next.
How precision medicine has developed
Since the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, precision medicine has developed rapidly. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since approved treatments for certain forms of cystic fibrosis and targeted therapy for many types of cancer. Researchers are finding ways that might improve individual diets, such as specific foods that affect a person’s type 2 diabetes, for better or worse. It is also helping scientists determine how to manage infectious diseases, asthma, and heart disease.
The nature of personalized medicine means each group that could benefit from these treatments is small. When the FDA approved the drug Zykadia, for example, it was designed to treat the 5 percent of lung cancer patients with a certain mutation of late-stage metastatic lung cancer.
But because such treatments are targeted to a patient’s specific needs — and often to the genetic mutations of the diseases themselves — they can be much more effective than the options previously available.
The future of personalized medicine
Still new, personalized treatments are not yet the standard that all doctors use. Many groups, however, fund their development, including The Personalized Medicine Coalition. Centers throughout the country and world are now available for patients who may benefit from tailored treatments.
But, like any new developments in the medical field, precision treatments raise as many questions as the answers they provide.
New drugs are expensive to develop and can take decades to go from the research stage to a treatment that is available for everyday people. Because they target such small portions of the population, they are expensive to buy and use. Government regulators, doctors, and insurance companies all struggle with deciding who should pay for such specialized treatments and how.
For patients with extremely rare diseases, there may not be enough public attention to prompt the development of personalized treatments at accessible prices. While insurance companies have so far been willing to pay for expensive personalized treatments for small portions of the population, patients with more common diseases affecting many other people may find that their insurers will not cover the costs of their treatment.
For now, many researchers and health professionals remain optimistic about the lifesaving potential of personalized medicine.
June 26, 2023
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA