A large portion of medical research is dedicated to designing and testing new and better drugs for treating disease. But what if we could improve treatments with the drugs we already have – and potentially cut costs at the same time? That’s the proposal made in an editorial this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association written by the Medical Center’s M. Eileen Dolan and Vanderbilt University’s Russell Wilke. Their article, “Genetics and Variable Drug Response,” is an optimistic snapshot of the current state of pharmacogenetics, the use of genetic information to improve the use of pharmaceuticals.
Though individualized or personalized medicine has been a goal of physicians and researchers for several years, the science (as it tends to do) is moving slowly. But as Dolan and Wilke write, promising pharmacogenetics examples are beginning to accumulate, from genes for enzymes found to influence the metabolism of chemotherapy and anti-clotting drugs to genetic variants that predict severe side effects from various agents. Some of these discoveries have already made it to the clinic, such as the genetic test (developed at the University of Chicago by Mark Ratain) for a variant that affects the response to the cancer drug irinotecan. Physicians can use the test to lower the dose in patients found to carry the variant associated with severe side effects at the normal dose.
Dolan and Wilke dream even bigger about pharmacogenetics. Currently, the standard drug dose is set by the average response of a large population, hoping to capture a level where people get the most benefit at the least risk. But as more information about the genetics of drug response are revealed, those doses can be better shaped to each patient according to their own personal risk-benefit. This could bring some drugs deemed “too dangerous” back to common use, if some patients have a genetic profile that enables them to endure the treatment safely.
“For drugs with a narrow therapeutic index, pharmacogenetic studies may hold the potential to resurrect treatments previously withdrawn from the market, particularly for agents designed to fill underserved clinical niches,” they write.
If smarter dosing can truly bring effectiveness up and toxicity down, it would be a benefit to both patients and the health care system in general. One suggestion by the authors is to start building gene-based drug dosing into electronic medical records, creating alerts for doctors about “drug-gene interactions” similar to current alarms for potentially dangerous drug-drug interactions. The future of medication may be more complicated than “take two of these,” but smart implementation may save dollars and lives.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology recently filmed a short video with Medical Center associate professor of medicine Ezra Cohen, where he talks about how he decided to treat cancer patients while working as a small-town family physician. It’s a nice piece about how doctors are inspired to do their work and the connection between laboratory research and clinical care. If you want to see more videos with Dr. Cohen, he discussed head-and-neck cancer with ScienceLife almost exactly one year ago.
Right after his very cool study on the genetic origins of limb development was published, evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin departed for his annual expedition to the Canadian Arctic in search of fossils from the earliest limbed creatures. If you want to follow along with the hunt, Shubin’s teammate (and Tiktaalik co-discoverer) Ted Daeschler is blogging from the dig for the Philadelphia Inquirer! Read about how their remote site on Devon Island is “almost like Mars,” and how the expedition is already finding interesting fossils two days into the trip.
The Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Integrated Nanopatterning and Detection Technologies is a mouthful, but this research group based at Northwestern, University of Chicago, Argonne, and the University of Illinois is working to improve diagnostic technology with what sounds like science fiction: nanogold and bio-barcodes.
Medicine infiltrated the fierce world of political journalism this week with the news that Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann suffers from migraines. The Medical Center’s Richard Kraig explained the basics of migraines to Fox News and worked in some of his research on spreading depression: “The ripple or wave of intense activity in brain tissue is followed a by lack of brain activity,” Kraig said.