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What is Personalized Medicine?

J.M. Densing
J.M. Densing

Personalized medicine is a medical model that utilizes genetic information about an individual to shape decisions involving preventive care and the treatment of illness. It arose from the Human Genome Project, which studied the genetic sequence with the goals of learning the order of all of the DNA units and identifying genes responsible for a variety of illnesses. The practice of personalized medicine aims to use this genetic information, which is different for each person, to customize each individual's medical care. Some possible applications of the practice include targeted disease prevention measures, medication selection, and individualized cancer treatment. It is a rapidly developing field that shows potential to improve patient care.

The Human Genome Project was an endeavor that lasted for many years. It studied the human genome, i.e., the entire set of genes found within the species. Each gene is made of DNA and proteins, and all of these units together form a unique "blueprint," or genomic profile, for each human being. There are approximately 22,000 to 23,000 genes that form the human genome, and each one gives a specific piece of information about the person. Scientists have been able to identify many genetic variations, or combinations of DNA or genes, that have significant medical impact such as indicating the increased chance of developing particular conditions or improved response to certain treatments. This research is ongoing.


One of the main goals of personalized medicine is to use the information found in each person's DNA sequence to inform decisions about individual medical care. It's based on the premise that each person experiences health issues differently, depending on the genomic profile as well as other environmental factors, so care and treatments should be tailored precisely for the individual. There are several ways that personalized medicine is already being put into action, and the practice is expanding quickly.

Individuals can have complete genomic profiles prepared or they can undergo specific tests to look for specific information only. Personalized medicine data can assist doctors in making better informed decisions about patient care. One way genomic information is already being applied is predictive and preventive medicine. If an individual's genomic profile predicts that he or she is likely to develop a certain condition, for example heart disease, the doctor can prescribe targeted preventive measures to try to prevent the illness or reduce its severity.

Another way personalized medicine is being utilized is in individualized selection of medications and treatments. This can be especially useful in the treatment of cancer, both in predicting the course of the disease and the selection of appropriate treatments. When a patient has this illness, genetic data can indicate that certain medications may be more effective than others. For example, those with a specific genetic variation are more likely to respond to a particular cancer drug, while those with a different condition may find it ineffective or require a much higher dose. Identified genetic variations can also predict if cancer will metastasize, or spread, to other areas of the body. This knowledge can direct how aggressively to treat the disease and improve patient outcomes.

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