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Genetics and Public Health: Personalized Health Care

By Maya Orantes

Although personalized medicine sounds like a marvel of the future, it is actually increasingly prevalent in modern day health treatments. The study of how genes affect the way medicine works in your body is called pharmacogenomics. Pharmacogenomics is an ever growing field because it is an approach that emphasizes the ways in which your disease risks are unique and different, just like your other, more obvious characteristics. Those disease risks are based on the predispositions written into your genome at birth, combined with your lifestyle and environment. Sometimes referred to as targeted therapies, personalized medicine was created with the goal of reducing symptoms from standard treatments and using an individualized approach to treat certain cancers and various disorders.

The National Human Genome Research Institute defines personalized medicine with the condition that “the individual’s genetic profile guides decisions made in regard to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease”. Furthermore, it requires two essential pieces. "You have to have both an understanding of the genetic changes and also a targeted therapy that matches those genetic changes and goes after [them]," says Mary Beckerle, CEO and director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. Lung cancer treatment is one of the most advanced areas in terms of a personalized medicine approach, with several drugs approved by the FDA or in clinical trials for different lung cancer biomarkers. But a specific example of a targeted therapy currently available for matching genetic types is Gleevec, used to inhibit a specific protein created by what's known as the Philadelphia chromosome abnormality in some types of leukemia.

Some measures taken by patients to understand their health in light of pharmacogenomics include learning about their genetic history. The parents of newborns routinely request to have their infants screened for genetic diseases through blood sample testing. Genetic tests are now available for about 2,500 diseases, and as the number of tests available increases, there is an increased chance your doctor may recommend taking one if your family has a history of certain disorders. The latest approach to personalized medicine is to get your whole genome sequenced. This is an expensive procedure, but the cost has dropped dramatically as more effective methods have been developed by researchers. The dramatic drop in such a procedure is largely due to China’s largest genetics company BGI Genetics, whose very efficient manufacturing process allowed the cost of sequencing a human genome to fall to around $1,000 USD. BI owns about half of the world’s gene-sequencing machines and its reputation has earned its place as the second most-valuable stock listed on any Chinese stock exchange. It is figures like these that demonstrate the magnitude of potential many see in using genome sequence to customize treatments to suit specific genetic traits and develop new, highly customized drugs against specific viruses. So, while it’s important to remember that genes are not destiny, they do provide information that can lead us to make more informed decisions about our health and healthcare.

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