And for good reason. When you work day after day with patients, you quickly realize that while the results of large-scale, randomized clinical trials may apply to the population as a whole, they don't apply to every individual member. That's what makes personalized medicine is so exciting.
Personalized medicine's goal is to use a patient's genetic makeup, lifestyle, age, gender, and environment to provide a tailored treatment regimen. And information technology is playing a pivotal role in making that goal a reality.
[ Is it time to re-engineer your clinical decision support system? See 10 Innovative Clinical Decision Support Programs. ]
A recent account in the New York Times drives that point home. It tells the story of Dr. Lukas Wartman, a Washington University cancer researcher who developed the very disease he was studying, adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia. After eventually running out of treatment options, he and his colleagues decided to sequence his entire genome to see if they could pinpoint a mutation that was causing his disease.
With the help of 26 sequencing machines and the university's supercomputer, they did in fact locate a mutation that was contributing to his disease by causing the overproduction of a specific protein. Once they pinpointed that defect, they were able to administer a drug that targeted the problem. The drug, which isn't normally given to patients with adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia, put Wartman into remission.
That account highlights the promise of IT-enhanced genetic analysis. It has the ability to find the unexpected, and to point clinicians in directions that officially sanctioned treatments and evidenced-based research have yet to go. Its ultimate goal is to design preventative and therapeutic regimens as unique as your fingerprints.
While success stories like Dr. Wartman's are rare, they won't be for long. A few months ago, IBM announced that a cancer research and treatment center in Italy, the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori, is testing Clinical Genomics, IBM's new decision-support tools. These tools are designed to help physicians personalize treatments based on automated interpretation of pathology guidelines and intelligence from past clinical cases documented by the hospital.
These tools are also helping AIDS researchers in Europe analyze genomic and clinical data to make better decisions about the drug cocktails used to treat HIV patients, said Chalapathy Neti, director of global healthcare transformation at IBM Research in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
Similarly, Dell is so convinced that health IT will play a major role in medicine's future that it's putting the infrastructure in place to support the use of electronic health records in genomics research. Dell recently donated $4 million in server capacity and services to support a project aimed at applying personalized medicine to pediatric cancer care. The clinical trial project initially focuses on neuroblastoma, a rare, deadly cancer that strikes one in 100,000 children annually before the age of 5 and is responsible for one in seven pediatric cancer deaths.
When will we see the fruits of such futuristic technology? For patients like Lukas Wartman, the answer is now. But he works in a top-flight research facility with easy access to gene sequencers, supercomputers, and statistics software. I suspect the rest of us won't see this kind of personalized medicine for several years--but it's worth the wait.
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