Precision Medicine

You might not suspect that the success of the emerging field of precision medicine depends heavily on the couriers who push carts down hospital halls.

But samples taken during surgery may end up in poor shape by the time they get to the pathology lab — and that has serious implications for patients as well as for scientists who want to use that material to develop personalized tests and treatments that are safer and more effective.

Marc Nozell via Flickr

During his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Obama announced a new campaign to "cure cancer once and for all," with Vice President Joe Biden at its helm.

From left: Pat Loehrer, Dave Flockhart, Eric Meslin and Barbara Lewis
Barbara Lewis

David A. Flockhart, M.D., Ph.D. was a renowned researcher and physician who transformed care for patients by personalizing treatments and making medications safer and more effective. He died on November 26, a little more than a year was after being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Throughout his treatment, he shared his personal experience with the disease through radio interviews, public forums and other avenues, addressing important issues such as access to care and inefficiencies in the health care system.

Remembering David Flockhart, M.D.

Nov 30, 2015

David A. Flockhart, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally renowned researcher and physician who transformed care for patients by personalizing treatments and making medications safer and more effective, died on Thanksgiving Day (November 26) in his home in Indianapolis surrounded by his family. He was 63.

Read more about Flockhart's life and listen to Sound Medicine's  interviews with him here.

President Barak Obama announces his intention to seek funding from Congress for precision medicine at the State of the Union Address on January 30, 2015
The White House

Interview with Ronald Bayer, Professor of Social Science at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Precision medicine has a lot of important people in government excited. It’s a relatively new model of healthcare in which physicians use information about a patient’s particular genetic makeup to help prevent, diagnose or treat a disease.

A mannequin on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC
greyloch via flickr/

If you wear eye glasses or contact lenses, chances are they’ve been specially calibrated to your unique set of eyes. If you’ve ever received a transfusion, you’ve (hopefully!) received blood from a donor with a compatible blood type. So why not cancer and diabetes treatments that are specific to individual patients’ bodies?

It's becoming routine for cancer doctors to order a detailed genetic test of a patient's tumor to help guide treatment, but often those results are ambiguous. Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine Wednesday say there's a way to make these expensive tests more useful.

Here's the issue: These genomic tests scan hundreds or even thousands of genes looking for mutations that cause or promote cancer growth. In the process, they uncover many mutations that scientists simply don't know how to interpret — some may be harmless.

MaryAnn Anselmo feared for the worst when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor called a glioblastoma in late 2013.

"You start doing research on that type of tumor, and you're saying, 'Oh my God, you're history.' It's like a death sentence," says, Anselmo, now 59.

Only for her it wasn't.

Anselmo's successful treatment shows how precision medicine — tailoring therapy to each patient's genetic needs — is beginning to transform cancer care.

vials containing DNA
igemhq via Flickr

President Obama recently asked Congress for $215 million for an initiative to collect genetic information and combine it with health data with the goal of creating treatments tailored to individuals – or precision medicine. The proposal has bipartisan traction, and is expected to be one part of the President’s $4 trillion budget that's likely to pass in both houses. 

a sequencing of human DNA
Micah Baldwin via Flickr

This week on the Sound Medicine podcast: scientists are working on ways to combine genetic mapping with patients' health data to develop treatments tailored to individuals; we learn about the cutting edge field of precision medicine from bioethicist Eric Meslin. Plus, who owns your medical records, how police identify drivers who are high on reefer, and what can be done to save rural hospitals. 

You may soon be able to donate your personal data to science. There are plans afoot to find 1 million Americans to volunteer for a new Precision Medicine Initiative that would anonymously link medical records, genetic readouts, details about an individual's gut bacteria, lifestyle information and maybe even data from your Fitbit.