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.

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 like what we find out.

So, is precision medicine such a wonderful breakthrough?

Dr Data

Yes. Precision medicine is already being used to help many patients fight off cancer. Most people would have no problem agreeing to their doctor analysing their DNA if it means a higher likelihood of being cured.

No. Personalised treatments could lead to more inequality in global healthcare and a very damaging loss of privacy for millions. Imagine if your DNA records were leaked to employers, insurers and the police.

You Decide

  1. Would you give your genetic data to a company that develops drugs?

Activities

  1. Draw a comic strip explaining how precision medicine works. Include captions and at least five steps.

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
That which can be passed on from generation to generation.
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.

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