What To Make Of “Precision Medicine”

May 21, 2015

Precision medicine made it onto the public’s radar on January 20th of this year when President Obama announced during his State of the Union address that he intended to make it a priority in the coming year. Ten days later, he formally unveiled the “Precision Medicine Initiative,” putting $215 million in federal funding towards a variety of strategies intended to get away from what the Administration calls a “one size fits all” style of medicine.

The National Academy of Sciences defines “precision medicine” as “the use of genomic, epigenomic, exposure, and other data to define individual patterns of disease, potentially leading to better individual treatment.” Also known as personalized medicine, precision medicine now is used primarily for the treatment of cancer.

While cancer treatments have long varied based on the type of cancer a person has – breast, lung, colon and so on – precision medicine enables physicians to take into consideration the molecular and genetic makeup of an individual patient’s tumor. This has spawned new medications such as Herceptin trastuzumab (Herceptin) for breast cancer. Having this information also can make a profound difference in treatment decisions physicians make.

Emily Whitehead, who is featured on the whitehouse.gov website, is a great example of an individual who has benefited from precision medicine. Emily was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6, yet was declared cancer-free just 28 days later. Her treatment included a procedure in which Emily’s own white blood cells, which play a key role in immunity, were collected from her blood and altered to recognize a protein found only on the surface of leukemia cells. The cells were then infused back into Emily’s blood, where they circulated throughout her body finding and destroying her leukemia. Science magazine declared this procedure a 2013 Breakthrough of the Year.

In the future, precision medicine also will be used to treat other types of illnesses, not just cancer. In fact, any condition that has a genetic or hereditary component – including mental illnesses – could benefit from this approach.

Some experts suggest that the buzz around precision medicine is getting ahead of the science, but that remains to be seen.

Precision medicine may be the medicine of the future, but not necessarily the distant future.

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