Whenever I watch commercials for new medical treatments, I’m always shocked by the fine-sized print on the bottom of the television screen. For a fleeting moment, a series of harmful (and, in some cases, fatal) side effects flash before my eyes. If I don’t blink too quickly, I catch the words “nausea”, “stroke”, and “liver damage” before they disintegrate and transform into a picture of a happy, healthy elderly couple strolling across a picturesque beach.
Drug advertising seems like quite the paradox with its stark contrast between hearty and wholesome images and the haunting list of side effects and withdrawal effects. When I was younger, I used to ask my parents how medications that were supposed to improve human health could be so harmful. They mumbled something about legal protection and the Federal Trade Commission. But their answer never satisfied my initial frustration about the dozens of possible adverse reactions to medications that were intended to heal, not destruct. After witnessing firsthand the deleterious effects of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, I knew I had to find a solution.
Last year, while conducting scientific research at Northwestern University, I stumbled upon a concept known as personalized healthcare. Instead of prescribing medications by trial-and-error or assuming a “one-size-fits-all” approach, personalized healthcare customizes treatment based on individualized information about a patient’s genetics, medical record, and physical characteristics.
According to a Forbes article from September 25, 2013, personalized medicine “uses biological indicators, or biomarkers—such as variants of DNA sequences, the levels of certain enzymes, or the presence of drug receptors—as an indicator of how patients should be treated and to estimate the likelihood that the intervention will be effective or elicit dangerous side effects.”
Through personalized medicine, doctors can analyze genetic differences to create and “fit” medications to patients, resulting in more effective treatments and fewer side effects. With personalized medicines, patients no longer have to worry if their medications will work. Families can rest assured that any drug therapies given to their loved ones won’t result in lethal responses. Physicians will have more control and choice in selecting the best options for their patients. Dr. Kathryn Teng of Cleveland Clinic believes that personalized healthcare can help predict the right therapy with the fewest side effects for individual patients, and thus, improve the quality of care and decrease the cost at the same time.
Personalized healthcare may be the very solution to paradoxical drug advertising and the scary list of a million side effects.
Dr. Pamela Sankar, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, says that the future of personalized medicine is pharmacogenetics, in which healthcare providers choose drugs based on a person’s genetics. According to Sankar, based on a genetic analysis, doctors will have information to decide if a patient should receive a certain medicine and how that medicine should be dosed, or whether preventative measures should be taken instead.
Undoubtedly, personalized healthcare will shape the future of the healthcare industry. Already, doctors are using genetic tests to see if they should prescribe the HIV drug Abacavir. A U.S. News and World Report article from July 12, 2013, states that Abacavir can cause a potentially deadly reaction in 5 to 8 percent of patients. Applying the concept of personalized medicine, doctors utilize a genetic test to see if patients should take the drug. But it’s not just HIV. Physicians can also use these tests to gauge how much a person will benefit from the anti-clotting drug Plavix, to prescribe the best dose of the blood thinner warfarin, and to see who’s likely to experience muscle pain or weakness in response to the anti-cholesterol drug simvastatin.
Perhaps the greatest strides toward personalized healthcare have been made in cancer treatment.
Take 55-year-old Betty Lane, for example. In the summer of 2011, Lane was diagnosed with stage 3b lung cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy drove away her disease for six months, but it soon returned, this time in her liver. Her cancer didn’t respond to a traditional drug trial. However, after a screening, Lane’s lung tumor revealed a genetic glitch more commonly found in breast and gastric tumors. The result? Lane was given a drug called Herceptin, a drug normally used to treat breast cancer. Now, her cancer is diminishing.
But before personalized healthcare becomes a reality, the medical community must overcome economic and organizational challenges. Categorizing and understanding vast amounts of health data associated with personalized medicine can be difficult. In addition, currently, personalized medicine is still too expensive to be widely functional, so the concept must be implemented in phases and the drug development process must be made more cost-effective.
Once these obstacles are overcome, personalized healthcare is poised to improve the quality of treatments and decrease costs over the long run.
Hobson, Katherine. “The Personalization of Medicine.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 12 July 2013. Web. 08 June 2014.
Langman, Loralie J., and Christine L.h. Snozek. “The Challenges of Personalized Medicine.” Clinical Biochemistry 45.6 (2012): 382-83. 2009. Web. 8 June 2014.
Miller, Henry I. “Personalized Medicine May Be Good For Patients But Bad For Drug Companies’ Bottom Line.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 June 2014.
“Precision Medicine: A Revolution in Health.” University of California, San Francisco, 19 June 2013. Web. 8 June 2014.
Teng, Kathryn. “What Is Personalized Healthcare?” Health Hub from Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, 14 May 2012. Web. 08 June 2014.