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What Personalizing Health Care Might Mean for You

08/16/2015 10:32 EDT | Updated 08/16/2016 05:59 EDT
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Scientist pipetting samples into eppendorf tubes in research laboratory

The idea that viruses derived from an insect and the common cold can be used to fight cancer may sound like science fiction, but it's not.

Canadian researchers have recently begun a clinical trial, funded by the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, to investigate whether the two virus strains can treat certain types of cancer more effectively with fewer side effects.

This is just one example of the exciting new frontier for science that has occurred since the mapping of the human genome in 2003.

The acceleration of research and development of sophisticated biologic medicines and vaccines to more effectively prevent and treat disease has given rise to a form of healthcare known as personalized medicine.

What is personalized medicine?

The U.S. Federal Drug Administration describes it as the "tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics, needs, and preferences of a patient during all stages of care, including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up."

This approach may sound complex and time consuming, but the benefits are potentially immense for patients and our healthcare system.

Imagine being able to determine at an early age whether someone is susceptible to a certain disease. Is it possible that the onset of the disease could be prevented or treatment start earlier with fewer side effects? Aside from the obvious result of potentially saving and changing lives, this could also lead to saving time, money and resources.

This is not tomorrow's healthcare model. Actually, the U.S.-based Personalized Medicine Coalition offers some concrete examples of success today.

In the area of cardiovascular disease, an innovative diagnostic test has been developed to assess a heart transplant recipient's likelihood of rejecting a transplanted organ. The non-invasive test is done on a blood sample which is a vast improvement on the previous method of managing heart transplant rejection: an invasive heart biopsy. This new technique also gives hope that ongoing testing can predict risk of rejection and guide a more tailored drug treatment regime.

As the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) tells us, the personalized medicine approach is showing promise not only in oncology and cardiovascular diseases but also in treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders, diabetes and obesity, arthritis and pain.

According to CIHR, personalized medicine, "promises to transform the delivery of healthcare to patients." It has the potential to, "not only focus on the identification of biomarkers and genetic signatures for prevention and prediction of therapeutic response, but will also enhance awareness about lifestyle and preventive lifestyle changes."

Canada can play a leading role in personalized medicine. For example, the Rx&D Health Research Foundation, Genome BC and a group of pharmaceutical companies have come together to launch a pilot project to support drug therapy decisions for family physicians.

The new research project is led by Dr. Martin Dawes at the University of British Columbia (UBC). This personalized medicine initiative will apply a genomic approach to screen for 33 markers in five genes of a patient's DNA.

The aim is to improve health outcomes for patients with fewer side effects.

Dr. Dawes, who is head of the family practice department at UBC, says the initiative is designed to "improve health care by offering genetic evidence that provides information for physicians about what drugs are safe and effective for patients."

Partnerships like this one are just the beginning. To make personalized medicine a reality for all Canadians we need to forge alliances involving governments, all aspects of industry like technology, insurance, pharmaceutical and device companies, as well as researchers.

This 21st century approach to medicine will ensure patients are given with the right treatment at the right time in the right way.

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