For more than a century, the practice of medicine has largely been population-based. That is, the diagnosis and treatment of particular diseases and their symptoms are based largely upon what doctors have learned from dealing with similar conditions in the past. It’s why they know to prescribe antibiotics for strep throat, for instance, or to use beta blockers to help with high blood pressure. In the majority of cases, these treatments are effective, and widely accepted by the medical community.
For more complex conditions the answers aren’t always that simple. A variety of individual genetic, environmental, and clinical factors can influence a disease, from how it presents to how it progresses to how it responds to treatment. More than a decade ago, researchers from the Human Genome Project, a joint study by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, revealed that the typical human genome contains as many as 23,000 different genes. The idea behind this research was to determine the specific genes that cause disease, but the researchers concluded that in most cases, it’s actually a number of different genes interacting that determine an individual’s propensity for disease and response to treatment.
These discoveries have had the effect of increasing interest in and speeding the progress of personalized medicine. But what exactly is personalized medicine? And why isn’t it in the mainstream yet? It’s coming, thanks to leaders in the field of biomedical engineering (and other experts gaining experience through online programs in systems engineering and related disciplines), who are shaping the future of medicine and making it possible for patients to receive personalized, effective treatments.
The Benefits of Personalized Medicine
The potential benefits of personalized medicine based on your own individual genetic makeup are myriad, from faster, more effective treatments to reduced costs. By focusing on individual genetics, healthcare providers can focus on the prevention and prediction of disease, stopping the progression of certain conditions before they even start. For those patients who do become sick, personalized medicine allows them to make more information decisions about their care, choose the treatments that will be most effective, and potentially avoid harmful or negative side effects. And finally, by choosing treatments based on the knowledge of what will be most effective, providers can save both time and money; no longer will they devote resources to ineffective treatments, and instead can develop plans that will work more quickly and effectively.
Biomedical engineering experts view the idea of personalized medicine as actually being a return to the model of healthcare that was common in the late 19th century. During that time, medicine was highly personalized, with every patient treated based on his or her unique set of symptoms and circumstances. Unfortunately, treatments at that time were also typically not very effective. Since then, medicine has advanced and become significantly more effective, but the concepts of population based medicine and standards have effectively de-personalized healthcare. Modern medicine is largely a “one-size-fits-all” approach, with doctors following similar protocols for most patients.
Biomedical engineers are working to move the pendulum in the other direction, drawing on the research from the Human Genome project and other advances. For instance, one study is looking at the possibility of using “event markers” on medications. When a patient takes a medication, these markers will send data to a monitor worn by the patient; for example, the patient’s heart rate or the amount of oxygen in the blood. That data is then transmitted to an app on the patient’s phone and automatically uploaded to the provider, who can then use the information to make adjustments to the treatment and learn more about the patient’s overall condition.
This is only one example of how biomedical engineering is changing the future of personalized medicine. Other projects include the development of targeted antibiotics and stem cell therapies, all designed to bring both organic and synthetic biology together to improve care, making it easier for providers to not only diagnose illness, but also treat it. When combined with known information about the patient’s genetic makeup, the potential for treating and curing disease is limitless.
Of course, these projects require a great deal of time and money to research and perfect, and it’s likely to be several years before we can simply swallow a pill to determine a diagnosis, and take a medication created specifically for our individual genetic makeup. It’s happening though, and there’s no doubt that as time goes on, personalized medicine is going to be the model of healthcare.