As the technology available to scientists, researchers, and doctors improves, so does the quality of medical care. From innovative cancer treatments to robotic surgical procedures, healthcare is better today than at any point before in history, and it’s only getting better. One of most important recent contributions to the advancement of treating disease? Pharmacogenomics.
An innovative way to approach the prescription and use of medication to treat a wide range of diseases, pharmacogenomics holds amazing possibilities for the future of medicine.
What is Pharmacogenomics?
Pharmacogenomics is a field of study that blends pharmacology, the science of pharmaceuticals, and genomics, the study of the human genome, to improve the ways in which medication is prescribed to patients. By using unique genetic information, doctors can prescribe medications with greater accuracy.
Since the successful mapping of the human genome in 2003, scientists have been able to hone in on the differences in genes between individuals. They have been able to identify gene combinations that influence things like appearance and disease, but this study is now going deeper. Access to genetic information can now inform the future of healthcare using pharmacogenomics, including how and when medications are provided.
Despite the overwhelming benefits, the use of pharmacogenomics in guiding a course of treatment isn’t as simple as it seems. The development of a pharmacogenomic indication requires the following steps:
- Discovery of a combination of genes that could affect the outcome of pharmaceutical use
- Validation in testing to determine the accuracy of this determination
- A technology assessment to determine the cost of testing versus the potential benefits available
- The establishment of an accredited genomics testing process or pipeline
- Development of the framework for genetic counseling
- Education to properly train healthcare workers
- Putting the policies in place for the use of genetic testing based on regulatory and legislative rules
This process isn’t easy, but is a key focus for scientists in this field of study, advancing prescription policies across all areas of medicine.
The Need for Pharmacogenomics
Historically, prescribing medication has been viewed as a combination of knowledge and best guesses. Doctors make choices based on things like age, weight, height, and symptoms, but with the assumption that medications will work in roughly the same way from one patient to another. However, this is certainly not the case, and directly contributes to the practices of regularly cycling medications to find the right fit.
The use of trial and error in prescribing medication is both inconvenient for patients and potentially dangerous. Adverse drug reactions cause many hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. every year, and the likelihood for this increases with the rate of prescriptions in use. Further, chronic conditions, like cancer, can be exacerbated if proper treatment isn’t identified in a timely manner. By making the right medication choice the first time based on genetic information, patients will receive better care, improving overall outcomes.
Pharmacogenomics makes many elements of patient care easier and benefits doctors as well. A better track record in treatment can elevate individual providers and medical centers, providing better resources for patients and better environments for doctors. Further, genomics research can be excellent cases for publication for physicians working in academic fields, increasing the amount of study in this field.
Current Uses of Pharmacogenomics
Despite the amazing potential in treatment based on genetic information, pharmacogenomics is still in its infancy. Preliminary research on the subject as it exists today started in 2005, and many current uses were implemented in the last several years. Many hospitals and medical practices do not yet utilize pharmacogenomics in treatment, leaving significant room for growth.
The current focus of pharmacogenomics is largely limited to chronic conditions that require a more specific approach to medication. Not all conditions have been studied, and of those currently undergoing research, genomic studies are most often focused on conditions that affect a large number of people or in high-risk situations, like the use of opiates in treating pain.
As illustrated above, the process involved in transforming an initial finding into the practiced use of pharmacogenomics is not quick or easy. The steps involved can take months or even years to accomplish, leading to slow growth within the field. As such, current uses are still limited in scope based on the study required to put procedures in place.
The majority of pharmacogenomics applications currently in use are limited to:
- Psychiatric medications, like anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs
- Pain management medicine
- Neurological medications, like antiepileptics and dementia drugs
- Gastrointestinal medications, like drugs for the treatment of conditions like IBS and Crohn’s
- Cancer therapies, like chemo regimens
However, this is changing every day as research increases and techniques improve.
The Future of Pharmacogenomics
The future of pharmacogenomics is very bright, especially when compared to where the field was just a decade ago. Research is advancing faster than ever, and more and more scientists are choosing pharmacogenomics as a field of study.
Medical researchers and physicians hope that pharmacogenomics will one day extend to virtually all forms of prescription drugs, from antibiotics to flu treatments. This also includes increasing the scope of existing strategies, like expanding cancer treatments to include all variations and pathways of care rather than limited opportunities for specific subtypes of cancer. Many doctors also support quicker and easier testing and screening options to increase the frequency of use. Further, ongoing research and clinical education can expand these practices from select and specialized clinics to doctors of all specialties nationwide.
Pharmacogenomics is among the most promising medical advancements in development today. With the ability to provide specialized care, customize treatment based on biology, and reduce risk in treating disease, it is likely that the progress made in this revolutionary field will only continue to grow.