- By Emily Gurnon
President Barack Obama announced a new “precision medicine” initiative in his State of the Union address this week that could give a boost to this exciting new health field.
“I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine: one that delivers the right treatment at the right time,” Obama said. His initiative, Obama added would "bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”
But what exactly is “precision medicine?” And how might it affect Americans over 50?
Harnessing Health Data
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation describes precision medicine as “treatments targeted toward a precise defect in the primary cause of a disease.” More precisely, precision medicine takes advantage of the vast amount of health data being collected worldwide, including genetic information. Researchers work to identify patterns to develop better treatments for individual patients, according to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), which has helped develop the field.
An Important Breakthrough
The approach has reversed cystic fibrosis in some patients, Obama said.
One of those is William Elder Jr., a 27-year-old medical student who was not expected to live long when he was diagnosed as a child with the disease. Elder attended the State of the Union as a guest of Michelle Obama and the White House called his story “a testament to the promise of precision medicine.” He was treated with a medication that targeted the underlying cause of his disease, and is now doing well.
‘Within Our Grasp’
Although the president wasn't specific with details about how much money would be allocated in his precision medicine initiative or who'd get it — those specifics are due in coming weeks — leaders in medicine across the country praised his announcement.
“Incredible advances have already been made in cardiovascular research and I hope initiatives like this will lead to even more important discoveries, treatments and cures that can be directed to patients more quickly,” said Dr. Patrick T. O’Gara, president of the American College of Cardiology, in a statement. “The promise of precision medicine is within our grasp.”
Since heart disease risk increases with age, as plaque gradually clogs arteries, advancements in this area would be a great benefit to boomers.
Hope for Cancer, Other Research
Precision medicine research by the National Institutes of Health has focused on cancer patients, including those with lung cancer., the second most common cancer among men and women (not including skin cancer).
Like many diseases, the risk of getting lung cancer increases with age. Two out of every three people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older.
UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood also praised Obama’s initiative, calling it “a major step in the right direction for medicine, drug development and health worldwide.” UCSF’s Institute for Human Genetics has tackled research into heart disease, diabetes, cancer and age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the university said.