Personalised medicine is coming for your DNA

World first: Yuvan Thakkar, 11, gets CAR-T which programmes the immune system to fight cancer. © PA

Is precision medicine always a good idea? Personalised treatments could represent the beginning of a golden new age of healthcare. But this might come at a cost to individual privacy.

Want to know if you are predisposed towards a certain disease? Just prick your skin with a pin and send the blood sample off in the post.

A number of companies today offer genetic testing kits that allow us to discover more about our health from the comforts of our homes. One of the leading providers of these services is 23andMe. Days ago, they signed a deal with a huge pharmaceutical company, Almirall, to develop drugs based on their users’ genetic data.

Such drugs are part of a wider trend in healthcare: “precision medicine”. Already used for certain cancer treatments, precision medicine is the development of personalised care and drugs based on individual genomes.

After all, our genes are the code that makes us who we are. The more we understand them, the better we will become at curing people who suffer from genetic and hereditary diseases. When created successfully, precision medicines come with zero side effects and can cure ailments much faster.

But privacy advocates are concerned by 23andMe’s latest deal. Instead of simply offering information to the people who pay for their service, the company is looking to make more money by selling drugs.

The data used to develop these drugs comes from four million-odd customers who might not have read the small print before spitting into a test tube and putting it in the post. Some have suggested that the customers should be the ones getting paid.

23andMe argues that what it is doing is unquestionably good: the first drug will look to cure a painful skin condition, psoriasis.

One of the debates due to rage over the coming years is whether or not our DNA is something that should remain private and protected.

For many, the arrangement of proteins that code our chromosomes are small details that will allow for personalised and precise treatments and the transformation of medicine world-wide.

But to others, learning to read our genetic script is a bit like eating from the tree of knowledge. We might not always like what we find out.

So, is precision medicine such a wonderful breakthrough?

Dr Data

Precision medicine is already being used to help many patients fight off cancer. Just because some companies are selling people’s genetic data does not mean that every healthcare company will do the same. Most people would have no problem agreeing to their doctor analysing their DNA if it means a higher likelihood of being cured. Doctors want to make people better: precision medicine helps them.

However, personalised treatments could lead to more inequality in global healthcare. Today, it is only the rich who will be able to afford personally tailored drugs – this is a tragedy when the data used to make these drugs comes from a larger pool of people. The limits of genetic testing are also unclear. Expecting parents could one day use it to decide whether or not they have the perfect child.

You Decide

  1. Would you give your genetic data to a company that develops drugs?
  2. If you knew that a friend of yours had a rare disease that was likely to develop later on in their life, would you tell them now or let them live for years without fear of ill health?

Activities

  1. Draw a comic strip explaining how precision medicine works. Include captions and at least five steps.
  2. Research the process behind the development of a medicine or drug. Calculate the costs involved and present your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future.”

Hippocrates (460-370BC), Greek physician known as the father of medicine

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We each have over 3 billion pairs of genes spread across 23 chromosomes. Ninety-nine per cent of all human genetic information is the same. It is the tiny differences that will make a person more or less susceptible to a certain condition. 23andMe already has close ties with another big pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline.
What do we not know?
We do not know how expensive the drugs developed by 23andMe data will be. We do not know whether precision medicine will ever be something that is available to everyone in the world. The impact may also be limited. No matter how accurately we can measure a patient’s genome, there are always uncontrollable variables.

Word Watch

Predisposed
More likely to get.
Pharmaceutical
That produce medicine and drugs.
Genomes
The totality of someone’s genetic makeup.
Hereditary
Characteristics which can be passed on from generation to generation.
Ailments
Diseases or problems.
Psoriasis
Disease that causes red patches of scaly, itchy skin.
Chromosomes
Thread-like structures which carry our DNA in each cell.
Tree of knowledge
Tree from the biblical story of Genesis. Eve eats its fruit, the apple.

Subjects

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