Technology plays an exciting and ever-growing role in the medicine as processes. One of the latest waves to sweep through the medical field is the development of personal genetics testing and reporting, which is being pioneered by an at-home genetics research company, 23andMe.
Weighing in on the potentials of the development will be Dr. Imran Haque, an internist and general practitioner based out of North Carolina. His experience of over a decade will help explain how personalized genetics research has tremendous implications for the field of medicine.
23andMe is a personal genetics company where customers get their DNA analyzed via a saliva sample. Through this model, the company has compiled a tremendous amount of genetic information from its customers, and the company has moved to leverage that information for research. Most of the company’s current initiatives are framed around the idea that individual’s genetics can cause differences in how people they manifest symptoms of illnesses, behave when depressed, or handle pain.
23andMe is operating in uncharted territory – it is crowdsourcing research via its client base. The two key differences between 23andMe and a traditional pharmaceutical research company is that 23andMe has the following:
- A large client base (two million people) whose genetic information has already been captured
- A client base willing to help advance medical research (85% of clients opted in to donate their genetic data for medical research)
Difference of symptoms and behavior based on genetic makeup
23andMe has a tremendous amount of data on individual’s genetic sequences, and it can draw correlations on how differences in the genetic sequences of testers can lead to different results. The implications of this type of research is huge, especially given the scale of the study. The studies could create a future shift in medicine from focusing on large, one-size-fit all medicines to more specialized solutions based on key genetic groups.
As a general practitioner, Dr. Imran Haque often needs to make a quick diagnosis on an illness, and maintaining an accurate record is not an easy task. Oftentimes, symptoms one patient exhibits for an illness may radically differ from the symptoms of another patient – accounting for all the possible scenarios in this case is a superhuman task. The research that 23andMe compiles can provide clarity on how and why people specific genetic makeups may exhibit symptoms differently, and this information can be used when diagnosing a new patient.
Consumers learn more about their own body
Dr. Imran Haque believes teaching people about their own body, along with future risks they should watch out for can only help the medical industry. He believes that diagnosing symptoms is a task that both patients and doctors shoulder together, and the process can become faster and more accurate if patients are more aware of common illnesses or problems they should watch out for. In addition, an individual who knows what illnesses they are at risk for, based on the profiles of others who share a similar genetic makeup, can take proactive steps to prevent illnesses, instead of a reactive approach after the problem already manifests.
Crowdsourced experiments – the effect of genetics on symptoms and behavior
When problems do eventually manifest, it’s no secret that people can react differently to the same medicine – especially when it comes effectiveness or side effects associated with commonly prescribed medication such as painkillers or allergy medicines. Dr. Imran Haque points out that it’s nearly impossible today to have a completely customized treatment plan for every patient a doctor sees. Some drugs today are created to treat a broad range people with minor effect while a more tailored approach could make a much larger impact for certain patients.
23andMe has around two million customers who have paid to have their genes profiled, of which 85% consent to having their data used for research. The reach and scale of the company’s testing cannot be understated – one of the company’s current initiatives is testing how genetic variations can lead to differences in how people handle pain, and they are looking to have 20,000 Americans help conduct these tests. This test is huge in scale. Successful and actionable research results will pave the way for similar or even larger scale research initiatives, and a larger sample size makes for more accurate and reliable results.
When it comes to at-home experiments, the company has clients administer a wide range of tests to get a complete and comprehensive understanding of symptoms or behaviors. One such example for testing pain tolerance is for clients to thrust their hand into ice water and hold it there for as long as possible while noting how painful the experience may have felt. This experiment was a small part of an overall initiative to determine genetic factors associated with pain and response to medications that alleviate pain. This test is called a cold pressor, and is only one of the tests to measure pain. There are a range of other tests, some of which include measuring a person’s tolerance to heat or pressure.
Targeted treatment based on genetic makeup
The importance of 23andMe’s research is the cost-saving implications it has on treatment plans and medication, as well as potentially making medicine more effective. Treatment plans tailored for individuals have historically been very expensive and typically created for life-threatening conditions such as cancers or HIV. For general practitioners such as Dr. Imran Haque, the research can pave a way to a future where more targeted and effective treatments become available to patients at a much cheaper cost. With a more informed understanding of a patient’s genetic profile, it becomes possible to diagnose more accurately based on what people with similar profiles have reported in the past. Overall, the studies of 23andMe bode for more effective medicine in the future.
The medicine of the future
Dr. Imran Haque believes that crowdsourcing medical research, such as that conducted by 23andMe, will pave the way towards a future where medicine is more effective and diagnosis is more accurate. The ability to quantitively measure how people of different genetic makeup react to outside stimuli or manifest symptoms is key to providing rapid and precise treatment. More efficient medical practices can only help save lives in the future, and the first step is being able to gather more data.