A Disruptive Innovation in Healthcare – Personalized Medicines

Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (Tufts University) in its publication named ‘Impact Report’, November/December 2010 articulated, “Biopharmaceutical companies are committed to researching and developing personalized medicines and within their development pipelines, 12%-50% of compounds are personalized medicines.”

Thus the disruptive innovation process towards ‘Personalized Medicines’ have already begun. Over a period of time ‘Personalized Medicines’ will be targeted to the biological/genomic profile of an individual to significantly improve the quality of healthcare to the patients.

This paradigm shift in the healthcare space would prompt similar changes in various disease diagnostic technologies, which will not only be able to detect a disease well before the appearance of symptoms, but would also  indicate which patients will best respond to or be adversely affected by which medications.

‘Personalized Medicines’ will in that process ensure a critical shift from the disease oriented treatment to a patient oriented treatment, which can be initiated much before the clinical manifestations of a disease are detected.

The technological march towards this direction is indeed risky and arduous one. However, the benefits that the humanity will accrue out of this disruptive innovation will far outweigh the risks in all forms.

Personalized Medicines:

Rapid strides in pharmacogenomics bring in a promise of radically different ways of treating diseases, as major pharmaceutical companies of the world make progress in developing much more effective medicines designed to target smaller populations.

The above ‘Impact Report’ defines Personalized Medicines as:

“Tailoring of medical treatment and delivery of health care to the individual characteristics of each patient—including their genetic, molecular, imaging and other personal determinants. Using this approach has the potential to speed accurate diagnosis, decrease side effects, and increase the likelihood that a medicine will work for an individual patient.”

‘Personalized Medicines’ are expected to be an effective alternative to quite unwieldy current ‘blockbuster drugs’ business model.

What is then the aim of ‘Personalized Medicines’?
The aim of ‘personalized medicines’ is, therefore, to make a perfect fit between the drug and the patient. It is worth noting that genotyping is currently not a part of clinically accepted routine. However, it is expected to acquire this status in the western world, very shortly.

Some interesting recent developments:

  1. The Economist, March 12-18, 2011 in its article titled “Toward the 15-minute genome” reported that ‘nanopore sequencing’ of human genome is now gaining momentum. This could make sequencing of entire genomes of cancerous and healthy cells possible to accurately point out what has exactly changed in individual patients, enabling the oncologists to determine patient specific drugs for best possible results in each case, separately.
  2. New cancer marker has been reported to aid earlier detection of the disease, where repetitive stretches of RNA are found in high concentrations in cancer cells.
  3. A new blood test will accurately detect early cancer of all types with an accuracy of greater than 95%, when repeated the accuracy will even be even greater than 99%.
  4. ‘Breast On A Chip’ will test nano-medical detection and treatment options for breast cancer
  5. A brain scan will detect the telltale “amyloid plaques,” the protein fragments that accumulate between nerves in Alzheimer’s disease

In what way ‘Personalized Medicines’ will be different?

With ‘Personalized Medicines’ the health of a patient will be managed based on personal characteristics of the individual, including height, weight, diet, age, sex etc. instead of defined “standards of care”, based on averaging response across a patient group. Pharmacogenomics tests like, sequencing of human genome will determine a patient’s likely response to such drugs.
These are expected to offer more targeted and effective treatment with safer drugs, and presumably at a lesser cost. Such medicines will also help identify individuals prone to serious ailments like, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer and help physicians to take appropriate preventive measures, simultaneously. ‘Personalized medicines’ in that process will focus on what makes each patient so unique, instead of going by the generalities of a disease.
To give a quick example, genetic differences within individuals determine how their bodies react to drugs such as Warfarin, a blood thinner taken to prevent clotting. It is of utmost importance to get the dosing right, as more of the drug will cause bleeding and less of it will not have any therapeutic effect.
‘Personalized medicines’, therefore, have the potential to bring in a revolutionary change the way patients are offered treatment by the medical profession. Genomic research will enable physicians to use a patient’s genetic code to arrive at how each patient will respond to different types of treatments.
In the field of cancer, genetic tests are currently being done by many oncologists to determine which patients will be benefitted most, say by Herceptin, in the treatment of breast cancer.
Expected benefits from ‘Personalized Medicines’:

The expected benefits from the ‘Personalized Medicines’, besides very early diagnosis as stated above, are the following:
1. More Accurate dosing: Instead of dose being decided based on age and body weight of the patients, the physicians may decide and adjust the dose of the medicines based on the genetic profiling of the patients.
2. More Targeted Drugs: It will be possible for the pharmaceutical companies to develop and market drugs for patients with specific genetic profiles. In that process, a drug needs to be tested only on those who are likely to derive benefits from it. This in turn will be able to effectively tailor clinical trials, expediting the process of market launch of these drugs.
3. Improved Health care: ‘Personalized Medicines’ will enable the physicians to prescribe ‘the right dose of the right medicine the first time for everyone’. This would give rise to much better overall healthcare.
Role of Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies:
Many research based pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have taken a leading role towards development of ‘personalized medicines’ in line with their key role as healthcare enterprises. India is also taking keen interest in this science.
Some important issues:
However, there are some ethical and social issues in the development of ‘personalized medicines’ primarily in the area of genetic testing and consideration of race in the development of such medicines, which need to be effectively addressed, sooner.
Can it replace the ‘Blockbuster Drugs’ business model?
Realization of deficiencies in the economics of ‘block buster drugs’ R&D business model has made ‘personalized medicines’ a reality today.
Better efficacy and safety profile of ‘personalized medicines’ will prove to be cost-effective in the overall healthcare systems. Smaller and exclusive markets for ‘personalized medicines’ are also expected to be quite profitable for the pharmaceutical companies. However, such smaller segmentation of the market may not leave enough space for the conventional ‘blockbuster model’, which is the prime mover of the global pharmaceutical industry, even today.
Reports indicate that some renowned global pharmaceutical companies like, Roche, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline are making good progress towards this direction through collaborative initiatives.
Approximate cost of ‘Genome Sequencing’:
When human genome was first sequenced, the reported cost was staggering U.S$ 3 billion. However, with the advancement of technology, it came down to U.S$ 1 million, last year. Currently, the cost has further come down to U.S$ 60,000. With the rapid stride made in the field of biotechnology, combined with the economies of scale, cost of such genetic tests is expected to be around U.S$ 1,000 in near future, making it possible for people to obtain the blue print of their genetic code.
Savings on cost of Clinical trials with ‘Personalized Medicines’:
Genome sequencing will help identifying a patient population, which will be far more likely to respond positively to the new treatment. In that process, if it reduces costs of clinical trial by even 5%, expected net savings for the industry towards clinical trial have been reported to be around U.S$ 5 billion.
With ‘personalized medicines’ the innovator companies will be able to significantly reduce both time, costs and the risks involved in obtaining regulatory approvals and penetrating new markets with simultaneous development of necessary diagnostic tests. Such tests will be able to identify patients group who will not only be most likely to be benefitted from such medicines, but also will be least likely to suffer from adverse drug reactions.
Therefore, considerable cost advantages coupled with much lesser risks of failure and significant reduction in the lead time for clinical trials are expected to make ‘personalized medicines’ much more cost effective, compared to conventional ‘blockbuster drugs’.
Innovative and cost effective way to market ‘Personalized Medicines’:
With ‘personalized medicines’ the ball game of marketing pharmaceuticals is expected to undergo a paradigm shift. Roche’s model of combining necessary diagnostic tests with new drugs will play a very important role in the new paradigm.
Roche is ensuring that with accompanying required diagnostic tests, the new oncology products developed at Genentech can be precisely matched to patients.
Can ‘Personalized Medicines’ be used in ‘Primary Care’ also?
To use ‘personalized medicines’ in a ‘primary care’ situation, currently there is no successful model. However, it has been reported that in states like, Wisconsin in the U.S, initiative to integrate genomic medicines with ‘primary care’ has already been undertaken. Scaling-up operations of such pilot projects will give a big boost to revolutionize the use of ‘personalized medicines’ for precision and targeted treatment of the ailing population.


In my view, there does not seem to be any possibility of looking back now. The robust business model of ‘personalized medicines’, will now be the way forward, as much to the industry as to the patients. It is a win-win game.

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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