Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Personalized Medicine Works


By focusing on an individual’s medical history and genetics, health care professionals can better tailor treatments and maximize their benefits.
By focusing on an individual’s medical history and genetics, health care professionals can better tailor treatments and maximize their benefits.
iStockphoto.com/dmbaker

When a young boy from Utah with a defective windpipe faced life-threatening breathing challenges in spring 2014, his doctors turned to an exploratory option: Customize and 3-D print an entirely new organ for him.

The treatment, which saved the child's life, not only points to the potential of new medical tools, but also shows treatment options are increasingly custom-tailored to a person's biology [source: Stein].

This idea, called personalized medicine, draws from biological information such as medical history, genetics and the uniqueness of a person's body to maximize benefits of medical treatments while reducing side effects and costs. In short, personalized medicine helps give "the right dose to the right patient at the right time" [source: FDA].

And a handful of screening tools are making their way to doctors' offices near you, such as a biomarker test for cancer or a genetic screening method to learn a safe and effective dose for blood-thinning drugs.

While we still have much to learn about the human body and basic biology, researchers are looking more closely at how diseases work at a genetic level, unveiling biological explanations rather than relying on symptoms alone.

As we'll learn, personalized medicine has come a long way from traditions of health care centuries ago to the high-tech tools we use today. We're also learning that with personalized medicine's lifesaving potential come challenges and ethical considerations.


More to Explore