What Is Precision Medicine?

Precision medicine revolves around the idea that a condition -- like cancer or heart disease -- in you isn’t necessarily the same as in someone else. Instead, the genes you got from your parents, and the environment you live in, can influence your health, the symptoms you have, and even how well treatments might work.  

If scientists can understand the root of these differences, they think they can develop treatments that are more effective.

A Vision for the Future

It’s becoming clearer that medicine is not one-size-fits-all. For example, a treatment that helps shrink one person’s tumor or eases their arthritis symptoms doesn’t always work for somebody else.

Picture this: You get detailed tests that can gauge how your arthritis or cancer differs from someone else’s. Then you get a treatment that’s tailored to you, rather than to anyone else.

Precision medicine, at its core, is about matching the right drugs to the right people.

But today it’s not yet possible for every disease. So even though it sounds like a great idea, your doctor might still give you the standard drug that most other people get.

At least for now.

It’s Already Happening

Where precision medicine is starting to make a difference is in the treatment of some cancers.

Researchers are beginning to change how they classify tumors. The genetics of some breast cancers, for instance, may be more like stomach tumors than other breast cancers. With precision medicine, cancers that are genetically alike are treated similarly.

For example, doctors know a drug called Gleevec (imatinib) works to treat leukemia only when the cancer cells have one particular genetic makeup. So, rather than treat everyone with leukemia using Gleevec, doctors test people for that specific genetic mix and give the drug only to those who have it.

They’re using the same approach to decide which meds people take for breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, as well as melanoma.

Just as traditional drugs aren’t a sure bet to cure cancer, precision medicines aren’t always a permanent cure. Cancers can evolve over time and become resistant to a treatment. Or a drug may work against only part of a tumor, which lets the remaining part continue to grow.

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Putting Eggs in the Basket

To test all this out, researchers are turning to something called “basket trials.”

The “basket” is based on the genetics of your cancer, not where it is in your body. For example, in a basket trial researchers are using today to test cancer drugs, people with many types of cancer are grouped together. The treatment they receive is based on the genetics of their tumor.

Researchers hope the results will help show the success of precision medicine.

Beyond Genetics

Genes are a big part of precision medicine, but they may not be the entire focus.

Doctors could one day use other methods to determine how to customize your care.

These could include:

  • The perfect diet for you -- and only you
  • Tests to find the bacteria in your digestive system
  • Blood samples to count your immune cells
  • Real-time tracking of your blood sugar levels, heartbeat, or blood pressure

Anything that can give doctors a better sense of you as an individual has the potential to help them figure out how to make you healthier.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 10, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

The White House: “FACT SHEET: President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative”

Collins, FS. N Engl J Med, 2015.

University of Utah Genetics Science Learning Center: “What Is Precision Medicine?”

Friedman, AA. Nature Reviews Cancer, 2015 “Precision medicine for cancer with next-generation functional diagnostics”

Schork, NJ. Nature, 2015. 

Redig, AJ. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2015.

Collins, FS. New England Journal of Medicine, 2015. 

US National Library of Medicine: “What is the difference between precision medicine and personalized medicine?”

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