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How Personalized Medicine Works

What Makes Medicine 'Personalized?'
Personalized medicine recognizes that each patient might respond to treatments differently.
Personalized medicine recognizes that each patient might respond to treatments differently.

Isn't medicine – and seeing a doctor when you're sick – a personal experience in itself? After all, you're being asked questions that are unique to you, right?

True, but personalized medicine goes a step beyond this and tailors treatment based on your individual biology. A personalized medicine approach might include gathering information about your genome (say, from a saliva sample) to understand whether you are more or less likely to respond to a type of drug or treatment.

Pharmacogenetics gleans insight from a person's genes to improve the effectiveness of a given dose of a drug or treatment of a disease. Differing from a one-size-fits-all approach of traditional medicine, personalized medicine takes into account the specifics of each person's biology [source: Krimsky].

Let's say a group of 10 people from diverse backgrounds has been prescribed the same dose of the same drug for the same health problem, but it only works in treating seven people.

At a genetic and biological level, tremendous variation could exist within the group that might account for why it works for some but not for others. Traditional medicine has relied on a trial-and-error approach, which focuses on the idea that this given treatment works for most people (seven out of 10), so chances are it will work for you.

But your genetics and biology might be more similar to the three people for whom it didn't work, and as a result, you might experience negative side effects from trying the drug in addition to wasted time and resources. Through personalized medicine, you would be screened before being given a drug, and doctors would not recommend the treatment if you have specific biological similarities with the three people who didn't respond to that medication.

These key pieces of information in our biology, called biomarkers, are measurable signs associated with a given disease at a molecular level. They help pinpoint the type of cancer or tumor a person might have and can increase the chances he or she will get the most effective treatment.

In addition to looking at a person's genome, medical devices and regenerative biology are growing areas of personalized medicine.

For people needing prosthetics or medical devices to serve a certain function, health professionals and researchers custom-tailor those devices to get the job done. One man even had 75 percent of his skull reconstructed and implanted with help from a 3-D printer [sources: and Oxford Performance Materials].

Another area of personalized medicine making headlines is regenerative biology, or using cells derived from a patient's body for therapy. Once the stuff of science fiction, growing your own healthy tissue in a petri dish is becoming a possibility by taking skin cells and reprogramming them into specialized cells in the body.

And with these advances come a lot of data, requiring many experts working together to make sense of it all, including geneticists, biologists, doctors, cancer researchers, chemists, computer scientists and statisticians. The list of experts will continue to grow in the future, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration envisions gaining more perspectives from experts in ethics, sociology and psychology to further the field [source: FDA].