What You Should Know About Precision Medicine

A new kind of technology is on the horizon, and it’s taking the guesswork out of medicine.

Dr. Errol Crook Photo courtesy USA Health

They say newborns don’t come with instruction manuals. But what if they did? Imagine a world in which a new mom leaves the hospital, babe in arms and reference book in hand. Within the pages of the guide is the child’s DNA blueprint, and listed alongside are diseases the child could face based on his or her individual genetic sequencing.

This kind of medical technology isn’t yet readily available. But according to Errol Crook, M.D., professor and chair of the University of South Alabama Department of Medicine, babies born today can expect to see it within their lifetime. While all of this may seem rather like science fiction, the technology is actually based on a practice that has been around for at least two decades — precision medicine.

Simply put, precision medicine is an approach to health care that allows providers to make specific medical decisions based upon several factors, such as ethnicity, lifestyle and, now, human genomes. Focus on genomes has slowly made its way from the medical field into homes thanks, in large part, to do-it-yourself DNA studies such as 23andMe. Results proving familial bloodlines have probably been conversational fodder around many a dinner table.

But what if the results could tell you more? What if they could determine the efficacy of certain prescription medicines or deduce your probability of acquiring certain diseases? Science is rapidly heading in that direction, but it’s a little more involved than just taking the results of an at-home test to your health care provider for deciphering. In many cases, he or she won’t be able to decode it, either.

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“There are only about 25 actionable genes right now,” Crook explains, saying that things like breast cancer, colon cancer or autosomal polycystic kidney disease all have genes that have been positively identified as being linked to the respective disorder. Additionally, some genes have been linked with metabolic rates for certain drugs.

To clarify, consider the following two examples. Suppose a patient has a family history of breast cancer. Knowing the history, the provider might suggest screening for the breast cancer gene. If the gene is detected in the patient’s DNA, then proactive steps could be taken, such as early screenings or, in some cases, prophylactic mastectomies. Suppose another patient is diagnosed with a blood clot in the leg, which requires anticoagulation treatment, such as warfarin. Thanks to an identifiable gene, patients can now be screened to see if they are a high- or slow-metabolizer, and from the results, the best dosage could be selected.

“There is no test, however, that the provider is going to do just in general,” Crook cautions. “If there are certain things that are clinically indicated, such as ethnicity and a positive family history, then they will start looking at it. Going forward, and with each new discovery of another gene, providers are going to have more powerful tools that will allow them to personalize their treatment and wellness plans for you.”

Interested in an at-home testing kit? Here are a few choices:

Discover the top supplements recommended for you based on an analysis of your genetics, goals, medications and health conditions.

From your origins in over 350 regions to the most connections to living relatives, no other DNA test delivers such a unique, interactive experience.

More than 125 personalized reports reveal your ancestry, health, wellness and more.

The site says it can pinpoint percentage breakdowns for ethnicity within 80 worldwide regions, no matter how unique the ancestry.

The more researchers know about what makes each of us unique, the more tailored our health care can become. Visit JoinAllofUs.org to enroll in the national human genome initiative.

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