What is Personalized Medicine?

Personalized medicine might sound like something dreamed up by marketers to coordinate the color of your allergy inhaler with your outfit. If that doesn’t sound too far-fetched, let’s be clear: That’s not what personalized medicine is.

Personalized medicine, sometimes called precision medicine, is a fast-growing approach in health care that selects and targets treatment and therapy for patients based on genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. It’s a more precise way of determining what patients need to fight illness.

A New Weapon Against Serious Illness

If you or someone you know has battled cancer during the past few decades, there’s a chance they’ve already benefited from personalized medicine. The cancer drug Gleevec, one of personalized medicine’s earliest success stories, has dramatically improved the survival rate of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Breast cancer drugs such as Herceptin and Lapatinib help block the growth of specific breast cancer cells caused by the abnormal protein HER2, with less severe side effects than traditional chemotherapy treatments.

Successes with targeted cancer treatments have led researchers to look for other areas where personalized medicine might be effective. The progress of current research suggests it may someday help patients with heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions.

Driven by Data

Precision medicine is made possible by data. By comparing information about large groups of patients, researchers have been able to discover more effective means of treating and preventing illnesses in patients who have certain factors in common. The larger and better constructed the data set, the more such treatments researchers may be able to find.

With this in mind, the National Institutes of Health created a nationwide patient database, the All of Us Research Program, which launched earlier this year and hopes to eventually collect useful health information on more than a million patients. Over time, this database and others like it may allow doctors to treat patients more effectively, with fewer side effects, before symptoms even appear.

Is It Something You Can Use?

Success stories like Gleevec get everyone excited about the possibilities of personalized medicine. But some doctors on the front lines of cancer care, where personalized medicine began, are more cautious. They point out that personalized medicine is still in its infancy, that targeted treatments are relatively rare, and that side effects and continued effectiveness of even personalized cancer drugs can still be an issue. And since targeted treatments are developed for smaller numbers of select patients, they aren’t cheap.

As a medical consumer, you should be aware of both sides of the discussion. If you or someone you know is diagnosed with a serious illness, there’s a chance that targeted treatments could make a big difference. But the decision to explore targeted treatments could come with increased testing and medical costs. And you should keep in mind that personalized treatments for many kinds of cancer and other illnesses just don’t exist yet.

If you decide to explore personalized medical treatment, you should go in armed with questions like these:

  • What types of targeted therapies are available?
  • How is it determined whether a patient is a candidate for targeted therapy?
  • What are the limitations of targeted therapies?
  • What are the side effects of targeted therapies?
  • Where can I find information about clinical trials of targeted therapies?

Even if you’re not currently facing a cancer diagnosis or other illness of that magnitude (and we hope you aren’t), there’s a lot that a simple, low-cost health screen can tell you about your health and health risks.

And now that you know what personalized medicine is all about, you’ll be that much more attuned to coming medical advances in the field. So if you hear a phrases like “precision medicine” or “targeted treatment” in the news one day, listen up. What you hear could save your life.

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