Personalised medicine ‘overhyped’

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The promise of personalised medicines — tailored to a person’s genes — has been “overhyped”, particularly for developing countries, according to the UK’s national science academy.

Healthcare based on ‘pharmacogenetics’ is likely to be decades away, especially in developing countries, due to gaps in scientific knowledge and a shortage of researchers equipped to study the link between genes and disease, says a report published by the Royal Society yesterday (21 September).

Leading UK geneticist, David Weatherall, chair of the working group who produced ‘Personalised medicines: hopes and realities’, said that for pharmacogenetics to take off, research practices needed to be harmonised worldwide.

“Variations in the laws for conducting genetic research between countries makes it difficult to combine data from across the globe into large-scale clinical trials,” he added.

Pharmacogenetics involves doctors analysing a patient’s genetic profile to predict which diseases they might be susceptible to and which drugs might work better than others.

“[This] may prove valuable in the fight against the big killers worldwide, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV,” said Weatherall.

The report comes a month after news that Thailand has launched a project to develop personalised healthcare for its citizens (see Thailand to strive for ‘personalised medicine’).

The Thai project is designed to create a database of genetic and health information using data from thousands of Thai patients.

Researchers do not all agree that such a high-tech science is useful for developing countries, which struggle to provide basic healthcare.

Weatherall told SciDev.Net that poorer countries might want to invest in pharmacogenetics to help healthcare workers avoid giving patients useless treatment or medicines that have serious side-effects.

For instance, between 60 and 80 per cent of people with sickle cell anaemia, a genetic condition, resist malaria. Researchers designing vaccines against malaria need to know whether some of their trial participants resist the parasite in this way to interpret their results correctly, says Weatherall.

He explains that this is a basic example of pharmacogenetics, but adds that more research is needed to determine how cost-effective and valuable the field is to developing countries.