Personalised medicine is a treatment programme that is tailored to patients based on their individual needs. Currently most treatment is a one size fits all approach but science is moving ever closer towards personalised treatments.
Lisa Ardill, Corporate Communications Fellow at Science Foundation Ireland, says because everyone’s genetic make-up is different, this approach often doesn’t work- it might suit a small number of people but will be wrong for others.
“Up till now, when genetic research was less refined, it wasn’t really understood how personalised medicine could be achieved and if it was ever possible. Now through advanced research they’ve been able to start to make it possible,” she says.
She explains that this personalised approach is made up of dosage, types of medicine as well as a tailored treatment plan, with the doctor and patient going through what is needed. This creates better outcomes for patients.
“For example, with anti-depressants, someone might try 3 to 4 different types before they find one that suits them. They all work in different ways so it’s about trying to eliminate that process of the person having to go through several different medicines- and working out earlier what they need,” she says.
Personalised medicine also means less invasive treatments for patients, which can be tough on them physically and can lead to pretty bad side effects. They could also alleviate and potentially cure the disease more quickly, if it is a curable disease. It’s also less expensive.
Meimei Yang is a PhD Student in Future Neuro, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Chronic and Rare Neurological Diseases. Her supervisor is Prof. Sanbing Shen, a co-PI in FutureNeuro and the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) in NUI Galway and their work focusses on Fundamental Stem Cell research and is also providing human stem cell models for Epilepsy and ALS.
“In the project I work on, we take skin biopsies from volunteers of Epilepsy /ALS patients’, then grow dermal fibroblasts from the biopsy and then convert them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) by reprogramming factors. Like ES cells, these iPSCs can be differentiated into almost all the mature cell types in the human body, including specific disease cell types, so that we can compare healthy donor’s cells with patient’s cells to find out what goes wrong in the patient’s cells. We then create disease models on culture dishes for drug screening and/or make cells for potential cell transplantation therapy,” she says.
The fact that they are the patient’s-derived stem cells, with important genetic lesions for the specific disease, and that they are human cells, not animal cells, make this approach more advantageous. Therefore the drug screening can be used on the model and the candidate drug can be effective in patients with the same mutated gene.
These very exciting advancements are still in the early stages but it is hoped that personalised medicine will eventually be used across the board, for all illnesses and diseases.
Neurological and neuro degenerative diseases are very difficult to treat and cure and it is hoped that there will be more personalised treatments for those diseases.
“They are some of the most invasive, so treating them is a priority but it makes sense for any disease or mental illness,” Ardill says.
Yang says personalised medicine is progressing faster and faster and is being trialled in some diseases with no option of other treatments, like cancer and diabetes complications. The first clinical trial of blindness using IPSCs was published in Japan and for devastating diseases like ALS, with only two FDA-approved drugs, which only extend life for a very limited time, this research is particularly important.
“I believe in the following decades, personalised medicine therapy will be used in many more diseases, thus improving the life quality of the general population,” she says.
For anyone considering a career in this area, the obvious path is through biology or health science, Ardill says.
“But there are routes through technology or engineering based courses too. A lot of it will be based on medical devices and developing the type of technology that will be used to figure out what the treatment is that’s needed and also to deliver that treatment. A STEM route is ideal but there are lots of different aspects of personalised medicine that need graduates. There will be a lot of jobs in this area in the future,” she adds.