Personalized Medicine

By Karen Ni, Cornell University

Every human being is genetically different from each other, and minute differences in a person’s genetic make-up can change the effectiveness of different drugs. For example, certain drugs used to treat malaria, such as chloroquine, can lead to hemolytic anemia in individuals who have a deficiency in glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, an enzyme that protects red blood cells from oxidative damage. In the worst cases, a genetic defect can cause drugs to have life-threatening effects. To avoid such instances, personalized medicine is a model of practice that takes into account an individual’s genetic differences to establish the most effective method of treatment and avoid dangerous side effects.

personalized med
Art by Anna Huang, Cornell Digital Health Review

Currently, most of the drugs and treatment methods are designed to be applied across a broad range of the population. This causes minority groups with certain genetic variations to suffer because some drugs either fail to work or work too dangerously well. One example includes depression drugs where 38% of the patients who take these drugs find them to be ineffective. The rates increase drastically as the illness becomes more severe such as with cancer where 75% of the patients find the drugs to be ineffective.

By utilizing and specifically-tailoring a treatment method to a patient’s unique genetic make-up though, personalized medicine can exceed past the limitations of traditional medicine. The benefits to such an approach are obvious: patient satisfaction and lower risk of adverse side effects. Following technological advances that allow for pharmacogenomic biomarkers to be identified, patients can benefit from personalized medicine since drug effectiveness can be predicted based off of their genetic profile, greatly reducing the time and health care cost that prevents some patients from obtaining proper care.

Despite the advantages of personalized medicine, it is hard to implement this approach for everybody at this current time. This is mostly due to problems such as: the affordability of genetic tests and mishandling or discrimination based on genomic information. As of right now, genetic test prices can range from $15 to several thousands, depending on the complexity and amount of tests. Typically, most people can use insurance to cover the cost of genetic testing; however, in doing so, they become vulnerable to genetic discrimination by their insurance companies. As a result, most people typically pay out-of-pocket for genetic testing. With personalized medicine, the amount of genetic tests can accumulate and lead to costly future medical expenses.

Hope on the Horizon - Artwork by J.H. Miao - Cornell Digital Health Review
Hope on the Horizon, Artwork by J.H. Miao, Cornell Digital Health Review

The field of personalized medicine holds great promise and has been expanding quickly in these past years, following technological advances in genetics. However, despite the hype, personalized medicine is still in its preliminary stage. Before it can become a part of routine medical care, more research into the many connections between a patient’s genetic make-up and treatment outcome is required to both confirm hypothesized findings and finalize research results into a prescription guideline based on genetic profile.


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