Doctors have known for a long time that people don’t respond to medical treatments the same way. A new approach, called tailored medicine, allows experts to treat people with certain conditions using personalized plans.
Tailored medicine also may be called “precision medicine,” “personalized medicine,” and sometimes “genomic medicine.” It uses your genetic information, lifestyle, and environment to create (or tailor) a treatment plan for your illness. In some cases, tailored medicine leads to better results, especially for people with rare or advanced diseases.
Tailored medicine also can help doctors create personalized plans to prevent certain conditions.
The field is still in its early stages, but doctors already use it for:
- Certain forms of cancer, including lung, breast, and colon cancers
- Rare childhood illnesses
- HIV and AIDS
- Cystic fibrosis
- Pharmacogenomics, or prescribing medication based on your genes
How Tailored Medicine Works
Most of the time, tailored medicine begins with a genetic test. This may involve a blood or saliva sample, or in the case of cancer, a biopsy of your tumor. Your doctor will also talk to you about your health history, your condition, and your possible treatments.
They also might:
- Check your genes to decide if a medication will work for you
- Test cells in your tumor to find out what kind of treatment to use to treat it
- Do a genetic test to see if you have changes that make it more likely that you’ll get certain diseases
Tailored medicine isn’t just about genetics, though. Doctors can also use your individual and family health history, things in your lifestyle like diet and exercise habits, and your environment (for example, pollution levels near you) to decide on the right treatment for you.
Non-genetic information is also important for research that can lead to new treatments. For example, with many conditions, only some people with genetic changes linked to a disease actually get the disease. That could mean that things like where you live played a role in whether or not a gene was “turned on” and led to a disease.
Is It Right for You?
Tailored medicine is mostly used for people with advanced-stage cancers or conditions where there are few or no treatments, like rare childhood illnesses.
If you think tailored medicine might work for you, talk to your doctor about it. You can ask, “Would getting a genetic test help guide my choice of treatment?”
It’s also a good idea to discuss genetic testing if you have things that raise your chances of certain health conditions, like a family history of it. If your genes show your odds are higher than average, your doctor may suggest ways to make it less likely that you’ll get that disease.
If your doctor says tailored medicine or targeted treatment isn’t for you, standard medicines and treatments, like traditional chemotherapy for cancer, still work. And if one treatment doesn’t help, your medical team will keep working with you to find others.
Keep in mind that tailored medicine is still in its early stages. Medical centers and universities around the country are working to come up with new information that will help doctors pair the right patients with the right medications.
Today, many people have treatment options based on the particular substances in their tumors. They can get better, more specific treatments, which might also have fewer side effects.
That’s one of the major goals of personalized medicine: to give people who have cancer the treatments that are most likely to work in their specific cases with fewer harmful side effects.
The White House: "Fact Sheet: President Obama's Precision Medicine Initiative.”
National Institutes of Health/All of Us Research Program: "About the Precision Medicine Initiative," “Data and Research Center.”
American Cancer Society: “Personalized Medicine: Redefining Cancer and Its Treatment.”
Elizabeth A. McGlynn, PhD, vice president, Kaiser Permanente Research, Oakland, CA.
Milan Radovich, PhD, medical co-director, Indiana University/IU Health Precision Genomics Program, Indianapolis.
Eric Dishman, director, All of Us Research Program, National Institutes of Health.
NIH Genetics Home Reference: "Do all gene mutations affect health and development?"
University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center: "More Examples of Precision Medicine in Action."
Stefan C. Grant, MD, associate professor, hematology & oncology, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC.
Intermountain Healthcare: "Talking to Your Doctor: Precision Medicine."