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Personalised medicine: starting from the individual

Personalised medicine has been defined as a form of medicine that uses information about a person’s own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease. It’s about giving each individual patient precisely the right kind of care in the right amount. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, personalised medicine is all about leveraging clinical and genetic information of patients to understand and treat diseases in a more holistic manner. Thus, according to the NHS, “patterns can be identified that can help to determine our individual risk of developing disease; detect illness earlier; and, determine the most effective interventions to help improve our health, be they medicines, lifestyle choices, or even simple changes in diet”.

As pointed out by Deloitte, the rise of personalised medicine is supported by a rapid decline in the costs of genome sequencing – genomics being the study of the body’s genes, their functions and their influence on the growth, development and working of the body. Genome sequencing and other novel approaches such as wearable technology allow for a more precise prediction of how individual bodies will respond to specific interventions, thereby heralding an era of personalised care. In fact, this requires a quite radical shift of focus in the world of medicine. While previous research was looking for the largest common denominator, the future will require researchers to be curious about differences between patients.

Personalised medicine has been high on the agenda of both national governments and the European Union given its promised cost-efficiency. As the United Nations expects the global population to increase from 7.7 billion now to 9.7 billion by 2050, with the number of people over the age of 60 being approximately 2 billion by that point, societies will urgently need to prepare for the consequences. In Europe, the figures are even more pronounced, with the Financial Times reporting that “by 2035, about one in four people is set to be aged 65 or over […], up from one in 13 in 1950”. In order to control the cost of medicine and healthcare in an ageing society, the current Dutch government has identified personalised medicine as a key priority and has allocated €200 million annually to research in this field.

Important cross-border research is also funded on the EU level. One of the key challenges identified by the EU is that each personalised medicine approach or drug will need to be developed for a relatively small patient population. This raises the question how to create incentives for companies to undertake this work, which will not be as remunerative as developing drugs for a large market. Another challenge, according to researchers, is related to privacy and data ownership. Pointing out that clinical databases are filled with heterogeneous data regarding who has collected it and which protocols were used, they emphasize that it is critical that data scientists fully understand how the data were collected.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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