Personalized Medicine: The Time is Now


Five years ago the Harvard-Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics, an organization that was a joint enterprise of Harvard Medical School and Partners HealthCare in Boston, held a conference on Personalized Medicine (PM).  As the subtitle of that first meeting, “Promises and Prospects,” indicated, the conference sought to examine the status of personalized medicine and to bring together different stakeholders in this emerging field. 

A newly founded organization, the Personalized Medicine Coalition (PMC), joined the effort.  The PM conference in 2005 focused on the scientific and medical basis of PM.  Two themes emerged from that meeting.  One was that a conference organized by a not-for-profit organization, together with an entity whose mission is to educate different societal constituencies about different facets of PM, was a welcome addition.  The second theme to come out of that meeting was that the implementation of personalized medicine requires collaborations between academic medical centers, government and its regulatory agencies, businesses, pharmaceutical companies, payers, doctors and patients. 

Personalized medicine has evolved significantly during the past five years.  In 2005 few people knew about PM and some who did know about it felt that it represented a futuristic view of medicine that may be implemented in 10-15 years.  In the ensuing years there has been a significant change in the awareness and attitude about PM.  Many influential people in the national administration and Congress have embraced PM as an important component of healthcare future.  President Obama, while he was a Senator, introduced PM legislation in the Senate.  Michael Leavitt, while he was the Secretary of HHS, embraced PM, and the current Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, is very supportive. 

Many pharmaceutical executives are speaking of the importance of personalized medicine in their drug development efforts.  An electrifying moment in our 2007 conference was a talk by John Lechleiter, the current CEO of Eli Lilly, championing how a pharmaceutical company can develop excellent drugs based on the principles of PM while maintaining profitability.  Today most, if not all, pharmaceutical companies are developing many drugs based on these principles.  

At that first meeting in 2005 the payer community did not believe that PM was ready for implementation and there was inadequate evidence to support payer attention.  We are pleased that since then examples of personalized medicine and their success have caught the attention of payers and that this is an important topic in the boardrooms and executive offices.

A major development during the past five years is the development and availability of technologies that enable rapid and low cost DNA sequencing.  In 2003 when the first human genome sequence was completed it was estimated to have cost nearly two billion dollars.  A few months ago a company announced that it has sequenced human genome for less than $10,000 a genome.  Many believe that the $1,000 genome is just around the corner.  This cost of sequencing has important implications for diagnostics and handling the large data sets. 

It also has implications for consumer genetics companies that raised excitement in some quarters and concerns in others.  Several thought leaders argue that the involvement of consumers in healthcare decisions augurs well for our future and the consumer genetics companies have the potential to predict and therefore prevent disease in our population.  The role of information technologies in medicine in general and personalized medicine in particular cannot be overemphasized.  It is important to assess the current status and future of all these features.

Based on the feedback from that first meeting all of the subsequent meetings have been a collaborative effort between the Center, now renamed the Partners HealthCare Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine (PCPGM), Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Business School.  The PMC continues to be an active partner in these meetings.  Past conferences attracted speakers and participants from many walks of life and the discussions inside and the outside the conference auditorium have been lively. 

This year we are hosting the 5th annual Personalized Medicine Conference.  It is going to bring together the largest group ever to celebrate the discoveries and success stories of personalized medicine and explore new ways to bring the power of PM to our healthcare.  We believe that the implementation of personalized medicine will result in better outcomes for the patient population at a reduced cost to the society.  Such implementation would indeed revolutionize the practice of medicine.

This year’s meeting is attracting a more diverse audience than previous years and we expect that there will be many interesting discussions at the meeting.  We welcome you to our conference.  I am sure you will find something of interest at our meeting.  It is also a great opportunity to meet new people.

By Raju Kucherlapati, Ph.D., Paul C. Cabot Professor of Genetics, Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

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