Getting up close and personalised

You may not have noticed it, but personalised medicine is about to be all the rage. It’s one of the biggest trends in modern medicine and what it may mean to the average punter is fewer side effects on medication. The idea is that the drug you will be prescribed will be tailored to your own personal genetic profile, thereby avoiding pesky side effects that may apply to the broader gene pool. Sounds good in theory, doesn’t it? And maybe it will be.

There’s a new initiative reported on the starting blocks this week which aims at using personalised medicine to reduce the side effects of medication in people with mental illness. Potentially this could be a winner, given the well known problems with side effects on antidepressants and other mental health prescriptions.

Geneticists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health in Pennsylvania are to implement the research project which will be conducted over 28 months. According to Dietrich Stephan, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Human Genetics at the School of Public Health:

“An individual’s genetic makeup defines how many common drugs are processed by the body and who is at risk for an adverse reaction from such therapies. Individuals can suffer immensely from the very drugs that are meant to improve their health if given drugs they cannot tolerate, often resulting in increased emergency room visits and elevated healthcare costs.”

Participants will be selected from a pool of adults with mental illnesses who are currently prescribed, or who will be prescribed, at least one psychotropic medication during the study period. Participation will be voluntary and oversight provided by a senior counsellor and a recognised ethicist in the Pennsylvania region.

Now, as someone who, this very week, experienced an adverse reaction to an anaesthetic, I can assure you the idea of personalised medicine is sounding mighty appealing. In my case, the doctors were utterly perplexed by my reaction and, in what could have been a television advertisement for personalised medicine, exclaimed things like ‘we’ve never seen this before’ and ‘never say never in medicine’.

So if it’s sounding like a relief to me, how much more of a relief will it be to those prescribed a cocktail of drugs with no insight into their genetic susceptibilities, perhaps triggering interactions and symptoms which might be misdiagnosed as part of their symptom profile?

All too often, the vulnerable, the mentally ill and the elderly, obediently (and sometimes not so obediently) imbibe drugs with a side effect list the length of your arm, based on best guesses as to their problem, only to feel even worse for the treatment.

Personalised medicine, especially in the area of mental health, seems to me to be a step forward, so let’s hope this US study yields some positive results.

Written by Jacqui Hogan