Five Ways Personalized Medicine is Evolving
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The human body is an amazing system of cells, hormones, and immune factors constantly engaged in complex and nuanced interactions. As medicine has advanced, doctors have discovered that people often have different responses to the same medication due to differences in genes and physiology. The field of personalized medicine examines a patient’s individual biology, medical history, and environment to develop a treatment plan unique to them.
Recent innovations in diagnostic and medical technology have made it possible for doctors to predict how a patient will respond to varying treatment options with greater precision than ever.
Genomic Scans Direct Treatment Plans
Among the greatest shifts in technology over the past decade has been the reduced cost and increased the speed of genomic sequencing. It took years to build the first map of the human genome, now anyone have their genes sequenced in a few weeks with a simple kit. As data about interactions between different genotypes and medications have become more widely available, doctors can utilize genetics as a tool to select the best treatment plans for a patient. For complex treatments, like cancer chemotherapy, these insights can increase the likelihood of success while reducing major side effects.
When combined with developments in computer science and artificial intelligence, genomic data is quickly becoming a standard tool in physician’s arsenals.
RNA Exposes What Genes Are Up To
A potential complication with relying on genomic data is that not all genes are active all the time. Consider that every cell in your body contains the same genes, but the cells in your retina look and behave very differently than the cells in your liver. This is possible because only retina-specific genes are active in the retina, while only liver-specific genes are active in the liver. For doctors to fully understand which genes are potentially impacting health, they need to be able to measure which genes are active. That’s where RNAseq comes in.
Active genes produce molecules called RNA that create the downstream effects of a gene. For example, the gene for type A blood produces a strand of RNA that directs the creation of type A antibodies on red blood cells. RNAseq allows doctors to determine what RNA is being produced, and thus which genes are active. The technology that has driven advances in genetic sequencing is now making RNA sequencing available as a diagnostic tool, allowing for the creation of more tightly tailored treatment programs.
Patient Cells Test Medications
For some patients, it can be difficult to predict how critical organs will respond to a given medication from genetics alone. Particularly for patients with rare diseases, doctors may not have enough data to confidently direct treatment decisions when stakes are high. For example, one of the most dangerous, and also most common, potentially deadly side effects of medication is heart arrhythmia, changes in the heartbeat. Traditionally arrhythmia has been difficult to test for in patients with rare conditions that may be difficult to replicate in lab animals. Advances in stem cell and tissue culture technologies now allow doctors to grow a patient’s own heart cells in the lab, replicate their heartbeat, and test the effects of different medications with no danger to the patient.
Assessing patient cells in the lab can provide highly tailored information about individual threats from different medications without risking patient health.
Cell-Based Treatments Reprogram the Immune System
Beyond testing medications, patient cells have recently begun being leveraged as treatments themselves. Following FDA approval in 2017, doctors can now take immune cells called T cells from a patient’s blood and insert genes that enable the T cell to identify and cancer cells. The patient’s own cells are then returned to their body and act as a novel therapeutic with fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapies. While genetically modified cell-based treatments are currently only approved for a small set of diseases, this technology is expected to boom over the next decade.
Researchers Anticipate Disease
The amount of available medical data has grown exponentially as computers have become an increasing part of our daily lives. Scientists are now able to combine data from many sources, such as medical records, genetics, behavioral data from apps, and local and demographic health trends, to predict which patients will be at the highest risk for different diseases. Technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence are enabling much earlier and more precise predictions that can initiate preventative medical interventions. Personalized medicine is now going beyond treating disease to find ways to keep people healthy.
A Bright Future for Personalized Medicine
Though many of these technologies are still in their early stages, one thing is clear: personalized medicine is the future of medicine. Treatments that account for the uniqueness of the individual provide safer and more effective care for the most difficult diseases. As technology continues to advance, these capabilities are becoming more accessible for patients everywhere.