Data Deluge: Can Precision Medicine Deliver on its Promise of Faster Cures?

While the field has been growing for some time, boosted by cloud computing and big data analytics, precision medicine officially received its stamp of approval and funding boost in January following President Obama’s launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), a research effort designed to pioneer a patient care model to accelerate the shift to personalized medicine.

In effect, the U.S. has been challenged to draw on its vast technological and scientific resources to develop next-generation medicines and diagnostics faster and more efficiently than the present rate of innovation. It is a huge task and the clock has started ticking.

However, that is not the first time that genomics and personalized medicine have taken center stage, Back in June 2000 President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the completion of the draft of the human genome as the starting point in profound new knowledge giving humankind new power to heal. “Genome science will have a real impact on all our lives – and even more, on the lives of our children. It will revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases,” said Clinton.

They noted that in the coming years, physicians increasingly will be able to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer by attacking their genetic roots.

There is no doubt that the time horizon they envisaged to see tangible results would have been comparatively short.

Francis Collins, for example, who back in 2000 was director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, addressed the Human Genome Project and how its outcomes would impact the future of medicine at the second annual National Congress on the Future of Genomics, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals in Medical Care. (See BioWorld Today, Nov. 20, 2000.)

“Virtually any disease except trauma will have some hereditary contribution if you look hard enough,” Collins said. “Even an infectious disease like AIDS has some genetic contributors that have an effect on whether you become ill after exposure to a particular viral or bacterial agent. So whatever disease you are interested in unraveling, genetics offers a very powerful set of tools to peer into the most primary basis of what is going on in that condition. The ultimate goal of genomics is to develop therapies that you couldn’t have with another strategy.”

In the year 2020, Collins predicted that technology being developed at that time would enable scientists to develop gene-based designer drugs that will enter the market for a long list of diseases. “Others may say the 2020 prediction is too conservative, and I certainly hope so.”

NOT PLAYING OUT AS EXPECTED

Unfortunately, the full impact of the Human Genome Project didn’t play out according to the way it was predicted 15 years ago – a fact acknowledged by Collins, now director of the NIH, during a talk to kick off the Personalized Medicine & Diagnostics track at the BIO 2015 International Convention in Philadelphia in June. (See BioWorld Today, June 22, 2015.)

Collins affirmed that he was delighted the PMI had received bipartisan support. He did, however, remind his audience that it was not a new idea and that, in 2004, he had called for an ambitious large-scale, long-term trial that could provide information on how environmental factors influence many common diseases.

The idea, Collins said, did not find support at the time because the technology needed to realize the promise of precision medicine, which focuses on the individual rather than an “average” patient, wasn’t available.

In fact a decade after the initial enthusiasm on the hailed dawn of the genomics era questions were being raised in the industry and the media about whether it had lived up to its promise. Next-generation new disease cures had been expected, and on that front the period had been a bitter disappointment.
Five years on from those criticisms, the technology has continued to evolve rapidly, providing renewed hope that the PMI will, finally, be the stimulus to accelerate drug discovery and genomics delivering on its promise.

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