Thursday, March 24, 2011

Medicine's Future is Up Close and Personal

Today's guest blogger Arifeen Rahman, an intern with Scientists and Engineers for America (SEA), takes a stand for personalized medicine.

In 2000, Adriana Jenkins’ life was just starting to blossom. She was 31 years old, engaged to the love of her life, and a successful publicist for biotech companies. In 2001, Jenkins was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Her doctors told her that she had a 40% chance of survival for the next five years.

In the face of these odds, a small glimmer of hope emerged. Jenkins’ doctors uncovered that she had the genetic marker HER2, found in 25% of all breast cancer patients. And at the time, the pharmaceutical company Genentech was developing Herceptin, a drug designed to specifically target breast cancers driven by the mutation in HER2. Jenkins enrolled in Genentech’s clinical trials for Herceptin, and in a triumph over her five-year odds, she lived for 10. Before Jenkins passed away at the age of 41, she wrote a piece for Forbes Magazine, urging Congress to incentivize research in “personalized medicine.”

Jenkins’ story demonstrates the revolutionary power of this new field. Personalized medicine unearths great possibilities through a relatively simple idea: genetic makeup should directly inform individualized healthcare. Patients can uncover mutations in their DNA through a diagnostic test, and doctors can then prescribe drugs designed to target genetic mutations which drive certain diseases. These “personalized” drugs have a higher chance of successfully treating the disease. In addition to helping consumers, personalized medicine can benefit the pharmaceutical industry. Developing drugs that work across the board takes a long time to accomplish. Focusing on a narrower set of patients with genetic markers allows biotech companies to make larger strides in progress.

Still, personalized medicine has its potential drawbacks. On one hand, genetic testing could lead to a progressive, individualized approach to medicine. On the other hand, genetic testing could devolve into a twisted new game of looking at a consumer’s medical horoscope. The personalized medicine market is growing at an exponential rate of 11.56% every year. It is projected to be a $148.4 billion industry by 2015. The profit incentive of mass marketing direct-to-consumer genetic test kits could lead to uninformed decision-making by consumers, who might misinterpret genetic markers as fate. Genetic testing offers an insight into our body’s makeup and behavior, but it does not give definitive predictions of our health in the future.

Even with its limitations and potential drawbacks, personalized medicine remains a beacon of hope for the present and future, bringing us closer to unraveling the mysteries of the human body. However, several roadblocks remain on the way to making personalized medicine a widespread reality. Even though scientific research on genetics is rapidly evolving, the current business climate is not conducive to a greater focus on personalized medicine. Biotech companies have voiced concerns that further narrowing their target populations will create a smaller market and destroy profitability.

The key to reversing this trend is gaining Congressional support for personalized medicine. Federally funded grants and incentives for developing specialized drugs can bridge the current gap of uncertainty. At the same time, dwindling research budgets must be reinvigorated. To stimulate change, and grant Adriana Jenkins her dying wish, personalized medicine should be placed front and center on the political stage. This developing field can give millions like Jenkins a priceless extension of life – but only if we make it a priority.

Arifeen is a junior at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, CA. As an editor of her school newspaper and captain of the Saint Francis Speech and Debate team, she is excited to combine her passion for writing and research with her career goal of being involved in the sciences. In her spare time, Arifeen paints, swims, and writes short stories.

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