What is President Obamas precision medicine plan, and how might it help you?

Posted: January 21, 2015 at 8:46 pm

In his hour-long State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama spent a few seconds announcing a "Precision Medicine Initiative," but did little to explain what he has in mind. Background materials distributed by the White House show that Obama wants to invest in this "innovative field that provides healthcare professionals with tools, knowledge and treatments to tailor care to a person's unique characteristics--such as their genetic makeup."

Here's a primer on "precision medicine," a term you'll doubtless hear more about in years to come.

What is precision medicine?

Clinically, experts don't even agree on a single term for it. But "individualized," "personalized," and "precision," medicine are all used to convey the same idea, according to Gianrico Farrugia, former director of the Mayo Clinic's Center for Individualized Medicine: "rather than treating a person as [part of] a group, treat the person as an individual, based on [his or her] own genetic material, to enable us to provide individualized, personalized and precise care."

On a grander scale, said Keith Yamamoto, vice-chancellor for research at UC San Francisco, precision medicine envisions collecting enormous amounts of information -- not just from humans, but from other species and from basic science research -- and crunching that data to identify ways to diagnose and treat individuals.

What does that mean for me, in a practical sense?

Let's say you have cancer. By analyzing the makeup of a tumor, doctors may be able to better choose which drug to use, rather than employing a hit-and-miss approach based on knowledge of your form of cancer. The use of Tamoxifen for one form of breast cancer is a good example. And they can track the evolution of the tumor over time, to determine whether you need a different drug. If you need medication for another kind of illness, analyzing part of your genome might allow physicians to avoid ineffective or even dangerous drugs that interact poorly with your personal makeup.

All of this followed the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. As my colleague Brady Dennis wrote last year: "For reasons scientific and economic, one-size-fits-all blockbuster drugs are giving way to treatments tailored to individuals genetic makeups and aimed at narrow subsets of broader diseases."

Other possible applications: alternatives to opioids for pain relief, drugs for specific psychological illnesses, a drug for a small sliver of the people who suffer from cystic fibrosis.

What if I'm healthy? Can precision medicine do anything for me?

What is President Obamas precision medicine plan, and how might it help you?

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