Strategies for Accelerating Progress in Personalized Medicine

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Last year around this time, I wrote a blog aimed toward skeptics of personalized medicine, citing the progress we have made in lung cancer as just one example of how well this approach works for treating diseases. As I have reflected upon the advances we have made in areas like cancer and diabetes and how personalized medicine now seems to be the cornerstone for drug discovery and development for many pharmaceutical companies, it has become clear to me that there are still a number of areas for continued investment and focus.

What can we do to continue to grow the field of personalized medicine, find new and exciting therapies, and maintain the momentum we have seen over the past few years?

I believe that developing a personalized medicine strategy is the answer, but this is far from simple.

It begins by first appreciating that one needs to study the diversity inherent in diseases. When a new medicine is introduced in human clinical trials, for example, it is important to describe and understand the diversity of human responses to the medicine and to determine ways to identify those who will benefit the most from the medicine.

While we would ideally like to have such a clear scientific understanding of a disease that we can predict in advance who the likely benefiting patients are (which can be done in some instances), in most cases the personalization of a medicine comes from the observations made in clinical studies of diverse populations.

In contrast to basic laboratory research, where experimental designs seek to minimize variation, the “noise” in clinical trials can actually provide us with important clues to help form the basis of a personalized medicine. Well-designed studies, therefore, should study both the variation of the response as well as the scientific basis for that variation. When done well this can uncover biologic marker that become diagnostic agents for patient selection.

In addition to designing more clinical trials with these two aspects included, I would propose that those of us working in the field of personalized medicine should continue to support efforts that:

  • Fund basic research on the biologic basis of disease. Personalized medicine is based on fundamental scientific discoveries. Without these, there will be no improvement in our understanding of disease.
  • Fund research in diagnostic testing. Companion diagnostics can be useful tools to help healthcare providers and their patients make more informed treatment decisions.
  • Educate physicians and other healthcare providers about personalized medicine. Patients in specialized populations that may respond to a good therapy for their subgroup need to have access to the appropriate tests. This means making sure that those who can order the tests and use them as a part of standard care are aware that these tests and potential therapies exist.
  • Reimburse for diagnostic testing. Personalized medicine drugs will not have any benefit if they are not used and a healthcare provider won’t know to use a potentially life-saving drug unless the correct diagnostic tests have been performed.

Together, we can maintain and even accelerate the progress we have already made in delivering the right drug to the right patient at the right dose, every time.

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Join Dr. Stephen Eck on November 6, 2013 at the 9th Annual Personalized Medicine Conference hosted by Partners HealthCare Center for Personalized Genetic Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Business School. 

View Dr. Eck’s video interview “Personalized Medicine: How Progress Happens” online at the Personalized Medicine Coalition.

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