The concept of ‘Precision Medicine’ has started gaining increasing importance, in the treatment process of many serious diseases, such as cancer. It is now happening in many countries of the world, including India.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States, describes ‘Precision Medicine’ as:
“An emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.”
This is quite in contrast to the widely practiced “one-size-fits-all” type of drug treatment approach, where disease treatment and prevention strategies are developed for the average person, with less consideration for the differences between individuals.
It continues, irrespective of the fact that the same drug doesn’t always work exactly the same way for everyone. It can be difficult for a physician to predict, which patient will benefit from a medication and who won’t, besides having any advance inkling on who will experience Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR) with it, and who will not.
Whereas, the treatment path of ‘Precision Medicine’ allows doctors to predict more accurately which treatment and prevention strategies will work most effectively for a particular disease, and in which groups of people. This is mainly because, ‘Precision Medicine’ looks at the root cause of the ailment for each patient.
For example, in cancer care, use of the term ‘Precision Medicine’ would mean a treatment process for patients with similar tumors, that has been immaculately worked out in accordance with their unique genetic, physical, psychosocial, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Thus, especially for the treatment of life-threatening diseases, a gradual shift from “one-size-fits-all” types of medicines to ‘Precision Medicines”, could bring a new hope of longer survival or remission, for many such patients.
For example, in precision cancer care, it is all about analyzing a patient’s tumor to determine with specificity what drug or combination of drugs will work best with least side effects for that particular individual.
In this article, I shall focus on the development, use and benefits of ‘Precision Medicine’ in cancer, especially in India.
Not a radically new concept:
Several examples of ‘Precision Medicine’ can be found in a few other areas of medicine, as well, though its use in everyday health care is not very widespread, as on date.
One such example can be drawn from the blood transfusion area. A person requiring it, is not given blood from a randomly selected donor. To minimize the risk of any possible post-transfusion related complications, the blood for transfusion is selected only after scientific confirmation that the donor’s blood type matches to the recipient.
Difference between ‘Precision’ and ‘Personalized’ Medicines:
There is a significant overlap between these two terminologies. According to the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States, ‘Personalized Medicine’ is an older term having a meaning similar to ‘Precision medicine’, but may not always be exactly the same.
This change was necessitated as the term ‘Personalized’ could be interpreted to imply that treatments and preventions are being developed uniquely for each individual. Whereas, in ‘Precision Medicine’, the focus is on identifying which approaches will be effective for which patients based on genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors, as stated above. The NRC, therefore, preferred the term ‘Precision Medicine’ to ‘Personalized Medicine’ to avoid such confusions or misunderstandings. Nevertheless, these two terms are still being used interchangeably.
Another terminology – ‘Pharmacogenomics’ is also used by some, in the same context, which is, in fact, a part of ‘Precision Medicine’. According to National Library of Medicine, United States, Pharmacogenomics is the study of how genes affect a person’s response to particular drugs. This relatively new field combines pharmacology (the science of drugs) and genomics (the study of genes and their functions) to develop effective, safe medications and doses that will be tailored to variations in a person’s genes.
Global initiatives taking off:
Currently, in various parts of the world, there are many initiatives in this area. However, one singular state sponsored initiative, I reckon, is exemplary and stands out.
According to NIH, in early 2015, President Obama announced a research effort focusing on bringing ‘Precision Medicine’ to many aspects of health care. The President’s budget for fiscal year 2016 included US$216 million in funding for the initiative for the NIH, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) – the NIH institute focused on cancer research, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
‘The Precision Medicine Initiative’ has both short-term and long-term goals:
- The short-term goals involve expanding precision medicine in the area of cancer research. Researchers at the NCI hope to use this approach to find new, more effective treatments for various kinds of cancer based on increased knowledge of the genetics and biology of the disease.
- The long-term goals focus on bringing ‘Precision Medicine’ to all areas of health and healthcare on a large scale.
According to a July 2016 research report by Global Market Insights, Inc., the ‘Precision Medicine’ market size was over US$39 billion in 2015, and has been estimated to grow at 10.5 percent CAGR from 2016 to 2023, expanding the market to US$ 87.79 billion by end 2023.
The demand for ‘Precision Medicine’ is expected to significantly increase, specifically in cancer treatments, and also would be driven by advancements in new healthcare technologies, and favorable government regulations, in this area.
Faster US regulatory approval:
According to an August 15, 2016 article, published in the ‘MedCity News’ – a leading online news source for the business of innovation in health care, companion diagnostics, this trend is gaining currency as novel drugs are being paired up with tests that determine which patients will have a higher chance of responding to that drug.
This is vindicated by an expert analysis of a recent study, which found that the probability of a drug approval jumped three-times to 25.9 percent of those drugs that were approved with a predictive biomarker, from 8.4 percent for drugs without one. This means a threefold increase in success, as determined by FDA registration, if any pharma or biologic drug company had a predictive marker in its new product development strategy. This indication would expectedly encourage more drugs to come with companion diagnostics than without, as the analysis underscored.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States defines ‘Biomarkers’ or ‘Biological Markers’ as, “a characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacological responses to a therapeutic intervention.”
‘Precision Medicine’ in India:
In the Indian health care space, ‘Precision Medicine’ is still in its nascent stage. This is despite its need in the country being high, especially while treating life threatening ailments, such as cancer, with greater precision, predictability and, therefore, more effectively than at present.
In several focus group studies too, the local medical specialists have also concurred with the global estimation of the inherent potential of ‘Precision Medicine’, as it rapidly evolves in India, particularly for use in oncology.
Studies related to ‘Precision Medicine’ have already commenced, though in a modest scale, in a number of Government research centers, such as, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) and Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology (IGIB).
Some large Government Hospitals too, like, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), and even in Tata Memorial Hospital are making good progress in this area.
Local potential and market impact:
In March 2016, a leading daily of India had reported with examples that oncologists have started using ‘Precision Medicine’, in the country.
In this report, a molecular geneticist was quoted saying, “We see patients with blood, breast, lung, and colon cancer being referred for genetic testing on a routine basis. This testing is either for predictive purposes or for precision medicine guidance, where genetic tests are increasingly being used to determine which drug may be used for treatment.”
“We have had more than a few cases where patients respond well after being put on a new drug based on the results of these tests,” the expert said.
According to a May 2016 report of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in the year 2016, the total number of new cancer cases is expected to be around 14.5 lakh (1.5 million), and the figure is likely to reach nearly 17.3 lakh (1.7 million) of new cases in 2020.
Over 7.36 lakh (736,000) people are expected to succumb to this disease in 2016 while the figure is estimated to shoot up to 8.8 lakh (880,000) by 2020. The data also revealed that only 12.5 percent of patients come for treatment in early stages of the disease.
Taking note of this fast ascending trend, it would be quite reasonable to expect that treatment with ‘Precision Medicine’, using advanced genetic profiling, would catch up, and grow proportionally in some section of the population, sooner than later. This trend is expected to keep pace with the commensurate increase in the anti-cancer drug market of India.
In tandem, the demand for preventive measures, especially, for cancer, cardiovascular, psychosomatic and many chronic metabolic diseases at the onset or prior to even onset stages, based on genome-based diagnostics, are also expected to go north. This would primarily be driven by increasing health awareness of the younger generation of India.
The spin-off commercial benefits for the pharma and diagnostic players in India, competing in these segments, could well be a significant boost even in the market potential of the older generic drugs in new patient groups, prompted by many out-of- box diagnostic and disease treatment strategies.
Another interesting article on genomic diagnostics for ‘Precision Medicine’, published on March 15, 2016 by ‘Pistoia Alliance’ – a global, not-for-profit alliance in life science that aims at lowering barriers to innovation in R&D, also expressed similar views regarding the future potential of ‘Precision Medicine’ in India.
Some key strategic steps:
Taking proactively some key strategic steps for business planning and development by the domestic pharma and diagnostic players, is now more important than ever before. This may call for developing some critical studies that would accelerate working out novel strategies for ‘Precision Medicine’ in India, besides obtaining required regulatory approvals in the coming years. The studies may include, among others:
- Detailed analysis of target patient populations
- Their genetic makeup for different types, or sub-types of diseases
- Addressable sub populations
- Their current treatment strategies, costs, affordability and differentiated value offerings of each, if any.
Genomic research in India is now mainly directed towards routine genome-based diagnostics for a number of conditions, mostly for cancer. The country needs to encourage taking rapid strides to first sharpen and then gradually broaden this area, in various ways, for more effective and predictable treatment outcomes with ‘Precision Medicine’. As on date, most of such studies are carried out in the United States and Europe.
Alongside, a robust regulatory framework is required to be put in place, for wider usage of ‘Precision Medicine’ in India, without causing any concern to stakeholders. Government should also explore the need of clearly defining, and putting in place transparent, patient-friendly and robust Intellectual Property (IP) policies in the ‘Precision Medicine’ related areas to encourage innovation.
Healthcare expenditure being out-of-pocket for a vast majority of the population in India, the additional cost to be incurred for genomic sequencing tests, still remains a huge concern for many. Nevertheless, the good news is, many players have now gradually started entering into this area, spurring a healthy competition. This process would also gain accelerated momentum, as we move on.
This is just a dawn of a new era of ‘Precision Medicine’ in India. Its rapid development, is expected to be driven by a large number of startups, equipped with state-of-art technology, and hopefully, with greater health insurance penetration and the support from the Government. All this would bring the ‘Precision Medicine’ treatment cost affordable to a sizeable section of the population in the country, particularly for the treatment of cancer. The evolving scenario appears to be a win-win one, both for the patients, as well as the pharma and diagnostic players in India.
By: Tapan J. Ray
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.