The New Age of Medicine

In grade school, students are taught that their DNA sequences are unique and individual. A look into any pharmacy, however, would suggest otherwise: the shelves are filled with generic, uniform pills indiscriminately prescribed to anyone with a doctor’s scribble of approval. There is a major shift on the horizon of medicine, though — one that will turn the one-size-fits-all mentality of the past into an age of personalized medicine.

The year 2003 marked the end of the Human Genome Project, a 13-year-long endeavor to sequence the 3.3 billion letters making up a human’s DNA. Its completion opened the doors for an entirely new approach to biomedical research. All diseases are influenced by genetic variation. Thus, by looking at the genomes of diseased individuals and comparing them to the genomes of healthy individuals, scientists are now able to pinpoint genes that are responsible for causing the ailment.

“Using genomics is essential to understand … contributors to disease,” says Eric Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. “It is an understanding that is critical to the development of improved strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and therapeutic intervention.”

Genomics is useful not only for discovering the cause of disease, but also for charting the best course of treatment. Because everyone has a unique genetic code, it isn’t surprising that different patients will respond very differently to the same medication. This reality makes treatments for genetic diseases like cancer an unpredictable and precarious ordeal.

With genomics in mind, however, doctors will be able to tailor an optimal, personalized therapy based on an individual’s unique genome, rather than slapping on a generic drug. Pharmacogenomics, as it is called, will be valuable in a wide range of afflictions, from cardiovascular disease and schizophrenia to diabetes and depression. Genomic information is already part of the standard of care for certain diseases like breast cancer and HIV.

Doctors will be able to tailor an optimal, personalized therapy based on an individual’s unique genome, rather than slapping on a generic drug.

The day may not be far when doctors walk into the examination room armed not only with lab results and past medical history, but also a copy of the patient’s personal genome.

References

Green, E. & Guyer, M.S. (2011). Charting a course for genomic medicine from base pairs to bedside. Nature 470, 204-13.

Harris, L. et al. (2007). American Society of Clinical Oncology 2007 update of recommendations for the use of tumor markers in breast cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology 25, 5287-312.

Squassina, A. et al. (2010). Realities and expectations of pharmacogenomics and personalized medicine: Impact of translating genetic knowledge into clinical practice. Pharmacogenomics 11, 1149-67.

About The Author

Daniel Liu
Editor-in-Chief emeritus

Hailing from the quiet suburbs of Potomac, Maryland, Daniel is the former editor-in-chief of Innovation. He studies molecular biology at Princeton, with a particular research interest in cancer stem cell biology and the molecular pathways governing metastasis. Outside of academics, Daniel also enjoys painting and drawing in his free time.