What is ‘Precision Medicine’, Anyway?

precision-medicine In his recent State of the Union Address, President Obama discussed his ‘Precision Medicine Initiative’, for which $215 million is being proposed for the 2016 Budget. In an era in which we’ve mostly heard about cutbacks in NIH funding, this is a big deal.

For many people this was the first time they’d ever heard the term ‘Precision Medicine’. What in the world is Precision Medicine?

Precision Medicine is the opposite of  ‘Cookie-Cutter Medicine’, a one-size-fits-all approach to treating disease, which is not always effective. For example, let’s consider cancer treatment. Fifty years ago most people considered cancer one disease. Even today it is not uncommon to hear people call for a ‘Cure for Cancer’, as if one cure will treat the hundreds of types of cancer that exist. It won’t. Why? Because cancer is many different diseases. For example there are many different types of lung cancer, not just one. Not every lung cancer will respond to the same chemotherapy drugs or treatments. Before we dive into treatment we first must determine the type of lung cancer present. This requires removing a piece of the lung tumor, performing genetic testing on that sample, and using the information gained to determine which therapies that particular tumor will respond to most effectively. We can then give that patient only the therapies to which that tumor is most likely respond --- sparing the patient the side effects, (physical and emotional) risks, and expense of undergoing a therapy that wasn’t going to work anyway. Using the right treatment, at the right time, targeted to the genetic mutations found in that person’s tumor – that’s precision medicine.

Cancer is a particularly relevant starting point for the precision medicine initiative because we’ve already begun to reap the benefits in this area. And precision medicine won’t stop with cancer --- we can use this technology to improve treatment of many inherited diseases, many common conditions (think diabetes and heart disease), and certainly to determine which medications will be most effective in which people.

Get ready to say goodbye to Cookie-Cutter Medicine and hello to Precision Medicine. The future is here.

Photo by Taki Steve, via Flickr