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Precision Medicine: Improving Health and Treating Disease

Precision medicine gives clinicians new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients.

At his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced that he is launching a new precision medicine initiative that will help deliver the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.

Many of you may be wondering: What exactly is “precision medicine,” and how can it transform medicine as it is practiced today?

Today, most medical treatments have been designed for the “average patient.” In too many cases, this “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t effective, as treatments can be very successful for some patients but not for others. Precision medicine is an emerging approach to promoting health and treating disease that takes into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments, and lifestyles, making it possible to design highly effective, targeted treatments for cancer and other diseases. In short, precision medicine gives clinicians new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients.

bill-elderThis approach is already saving lives. Bill Elder, one of the First Lady’s guests at the State of the Union last night, was eight years old when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, at a time when patients typically lived until only early adulthood. But in 2012, as a result of a collaborative effort between a patient organization, researchers, and a pharmaceutical company, a new drug was developed that treats the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis in about 4% of patients—those with a particular genetic mutation. Bill was among the 4 percent, and as a result, now looks forward to a long, full life and career as a primary care doctor. His story is a testament to the promise of precision medicine.

Cancer treatment is also entering a new era as a result of precision medicine. Patients with breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, as well as melanoma, are now routinely undergoing DNA testing as part of their care, enabling their physicians to select treatments based on this information that improve their chances of survival and reduce their exposure to adverse effects.

Precision medicine is not just about genomics. Health and disease are influenced by many factors. Precision medicine aims to also leverage advances in medical imaging, such as MRI and 3D X-ray technologies, and utilize advances in health information technology, as well as other fields, to better understand each of these factors and to apply this knowledge in the development of new treatments. The potential for precision medicine to improve care and produce new treatments has only begun to be tapped. Translating initial successes to a larger scale will require a coordinated and sustained national effort.

The time to begin that effort is now. We look forward to announcing more details soon.

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