We live in an era of rapid and profound technological disruption. The technological developments of the last few decades have led to numerous scientific breakthroughs, and few of these have greater potential to improve health outcomes than precision medicine. But what is the importance of precision medicine, how can we assess its impact, and what are the potential issues with implementation?
What is precision medicine?
The Precision Medicine Initiative was established under the Obama administration in 2015, with the government investing $215 million into the discipline. At the time, the White House described precision medicine as an antidote to traditional ‘one size fits all’ treatment approaches, instead taking into account ‘people’s individual variations in genes, environment, and lifestyle.’ In short, it provides more definitive healthcare for groups of people with the same ailment.
Traditional treatment and prevention strategies are developed for a notional ‘average patient’ and often fail to consider how variations such as age, race, sex, and medical history can affect how patients respond to treatment. By contrast, precision medicine accepts that there is no average patient, allowing HCPs to develop specific treatment and prevention strategies for specific groups of people.
“Doctors have always recognized that every patient is unique, and doctors have always tried to tailor their treatments as best they can to individuals. You can match a blood transfusion to a blood type – that was an important discovery. What if matching a cancer cure to our genetic code was just as easy, just as standard? What if figuring out the right dose of medicine was as simple as taking our temperature?” – President Barack Obama
Precision medicine works thanks to Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) tests, which can rapidly sequence large sections of individuals’ genomes and identify genetic variations. Precision medicine wouldn’t be possible without recent advances in genomics, big data, and analytics. It has also aided in cancer research and care and has even led to discovering other rare diseases.
How precision medicine can improve health outcomes
What is the importance of precision medicine? Ultimately, precision medicine aims to make treatment and prevention more accurate, tailored, and effective. For patients, the potential upsides are immediate and obvious. NGS tests promise more accurate diagnoses of a wider range of diseases, with fewer, less invasive tests. With treatments tailored specifically for particular groups, patients may also avoid the trial-and-error element of finding an effective course of treatment.
So, what is precision medicine used for? It’s prevalent in genetic testing and targeted therapy, which are essential in developing effective cancer treatments.
Perhaps the greatest potential benefit, however, is in shifting the focus of medicine from reaction to prevention. By improving disease detection and customizing early disease-prevention strategies, the hope is that precision medicine will help prevent patients from becoming sick in the first place, rather than simply treating them once their symptoms begin to manifest.
“Precision medicine holds promise for improving many aspects of health and healthcare. Some of these benefits will be apparent soon, as… new tools and approaches for managing data are developed. Other benefits will result from long-term research in precision medicine and may not be realized for years.” – National Library of Medicine
Much of the early focus of precision medicine has been on precision oncology. The goal of the Precision Medicine Initiative was to ‘intensify efforts to apply precision medicine to cancer’, with near-term goals including the launch of clinical trials of targeted cancer drugs, increased use of combination therapies, and improved knowledge in overcoming drug resistance. Precision medicine has already led to “the development of several promising new [cancer] medications” in the words of Wolters Kluwer.
Potential issues with precision medicine
As with any emerging science, there are roadblocks and teething problems to overcome before precision medicine can be more widely implemented.
Precision medicine is reliant on vast quantities of data. The U.S. government’s All Of Us research program aims to gather health data from more than one million people. By sharing this data, health organizations can advance their research – raising data storage issues, data security and compliance, patient anonymity, and consent. The information collected through initiatives like All of Us may have future applications we can’t predict today, which begs the question: should participants be informed whenever their data is used? What is a reasonable statute of limitations on data transparency and fair usage? Precision medicine represents a new data frontier.
Precision medicine is a growing discipline, and while the cost of gene sequencing is coming down, many precision therapies remain unaffordable for large sections of the population. There are concerns that developments in precision medicine will merely entrench existing health disparities. Our infographic explores the life science diversity problem and the work to be done across the drug development lifecycle. Initiatives such as All Of Us are striving to build diverse health databases that are truly representative of the population, ensuring that therapies and prevention strategies can be developed for previously underrepresented groups.
As precision medicine grows more widespread, formerly specialized areas of expertise such as molecular genetics, biochemistry, big data and analytics will become essential parts of HCPs’ toolkits. According to the National Library of Medicine, HCPs “will increasingly need to interpret the results of genetic tests, understand how that information is relevant to treatment or prevention approaches, and convey this knowledge to patients”. A certain amount of upskilling will be required if providers are to offer precision therapies moving forward.
Precision medicine promises significant improvements in health outcomes, but the road to widespread adoption could be a long and rocky one. In particular, data privacy and security concerns will be paramount for life science organizations. An insights management platform offers a secure, compliant solution where life science organizations can organize, contextualize and analyze insights from across the enterprise to drive faster, smarter decision-making. Users can engage anonymously with global HCPs or patients and gain insights from diverse participants. Insights management technology can even help pharma teams bring new therapies to market, too – read our infographic to see how insights management technology can help you prepare new precision treatments for launch.
Medline Plus. What are some of the challenges of precision medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/precisionmedicine/challenges/
National Institutes of Health. All of Us Research Program. https://allofus.nih.gov/
Medline Plus. What are some of the potential benefits of precision medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/precisionmedicine/potentialbenefits/#:~:text=
Wolters Kluwer. A primer on precision medicine. https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/expert-insights/a-primer-on-precision-medicine
The White House. Precision Medicine Initiative. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/precision-medicine