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Three things you need to know about personalised medicine

This is a guest blog post by Emily Allen, Master of Genetic Counselling Student, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Medicine as we know it currently revolves around “standards of care,” the best courses of prevention or treatment for the general population, or the average person on the street. With breast cancer, for example, those standards mean self-exams and mammograms after a set age and chemotherapy to treat a tumor if one is found. If the first treatment doesn’t work, doctors and patients move on to the next one and the next. It’s trial and error, with life on the line.

Researchers, some healthcare clinicians, and an increasing number of patients are calling for a more personalised approach to medicine aimed as much at preventing disease as it is at tailoring individual treatment once it’s there.

Here are three things that you need to know about personalised medicine:

1. What is personalised medicine?

Personalised medicine is the concept of using your personal genetic information to treat you in a way that is specific to you. By analysing your unique DNA sequence, it may be possible to predict and prevent disease, as well as to tailor specific treatments when disease does occur. Personalised medicine may allow an individual to be treated in the best way for their particular disease, as opposed to the “one size fits all” approach that has traditionally been taken in medicine.

2. What are some practical examples of personalised medicine?

We are already seeing personalised medicine working in a number of ways, while in other ways it is still only theoretical. Some examples of personalised medicine include pharmacogenomics, where an individual’s genetic profile may provide important information around what drugs will be most effective for them.

Another side of personalised medicine is seen in what is referred to as direct to consumer genetic testing. In this form of testing, the consumer can send in a DNA sample to a company, and which will then be sequenced and the consumer will be provided with their individualised risk results. Additionally, personalised medicine can be seen in cancer treatments, where individual tumour gene mutations can be sequenced and this can inform a specific drug treatment that will be most effective for that cancer.

3. What are some of the barriers to personalised medicine?

While personalised medicine is already being used in some settings, there are a number of items to keep in mind when considering how useful it will be in routine clinical care. For example, when a gene is implicated in a given disease, a great deal of research must be done before the finding can be used in a clinical setting.

Additionally, there are still many logistical issues to work out before personalised medicine is seen in routine clinical care. These include ensuring that those undergoing genetic testing have given informed consent and that their confidentiality will be protected. In addition to these, storage of the immense amount of data generated from genetic testing remains an issue to be addressed.

Another side of the issue is to determine the likelihood of individuals changing their behaviour to avoid disease, if their personal genetic information indicates that this is necessary.  There may be a role for healthcare professionals to assist individuals in adjusting their lifestyles to allow for optimal health, based on their personalised genetic results. It is also important to consider how other factors outside of our genetics impact our health, such as our lifestyle and environment.

Solutions to many of these issues are constantly being developed and personalised medicine is something that is well on its way to being seen more commonly in clinical settings, in order for individuals to achieve their best health, based on their personal genetic information.

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