Still Skeptical about Personalized Medicine?

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Over a century ago Sir William Osler, M.D., stated: “Variability is the law of life and as no two faces are the same, so no two bodies are alike and no two individuals react alike and behave alike under the abnormal conditions which we know as disease.” Despite our deep and long-standing understanding of the heterogeneity of disease and the variations in response to treatment, we are slow to adopt the notion that despite its complexity, the heterogeneity of human illness is decipherable. Skepticisms that we can actually deliver on the promise of personalized medicine is understandable, since converting such variables as severity of illness, uncertain vulnerability to side effects, co-morbid conditions and our cultural environment, to name a few, to precise algorithms for care seem daunting.

So, why has it taken so long for medical science to unravel this heterogeneity and why should we be optimistic that personalized medicine will happen? In part, our current views stems from where we have previously focused our attention. “Bergkrankheit “(mountain sickness) was known in the 14th century as an affliction of metal ore miners in Europe. By the 20th century we knew this as lung cancer and attributed it to a variety of environmental exposures. In this century, we have further refined our description of this disease to specific aberrations in molecular pathways, which if not entirely causative, account for much of the disease biology.

By contrast, medicinal chemistry as a science started much later than clinical medicine and is now closing the gap between knowing precisely what causes an illness to precisely what to do about it to improve the outcome for individual patients. No doubt we have a long way to go, but the current pace of personalized medicines suggests that it is becoming everyday reality for many lung cancer patients.

Join Dr. Stephen Eck on November 28, 2012, when he moderates a panel discussion at the 8th Annual Personalized Medicine Conference hosted by Partners HealthCare Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Business School. 

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