Imagine a world where every physician will be able to compare, in a keystroke, their diagnosis with the data of thousands of other patients with the same symptoms and demographic and lifestyle makeup. Our access to information today is unprecedented. We have smartphones with us everywhere we go and we can search anything online in a second. In the health care industry however, a comparable access to information doesn’t exist. The fact that we can’t search any medical information immediately, the same way we use Google in our daily lives, means doctors and physicians are being held back from providing the highest level of care.
The health care industry is evolving, however. The changes are not sudden and spectacular, but steady and evolutionary in nature. We’re seeing a slow transition take place towards a more connected health care system. Most recently, the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV /AIDs announced that it is pioneering new technology to treat patients with immediate and personalized care. This is the first initiative of its kind in Canada. Once the technology is installed, the Centre will be able to quickly identify a patient’s unique strain of the virus by rapidly analyzing massive amounts of data, and provide a treatment that is personalized to the patient. This means that patient care is greatly improved as treatment is provided quickly, which in turn can help lower health care costs.
What is personalized medicine?
We are able to provide personalized medicine when medical decisions, practices, and products are being tailored to the individual patient. A classic example of how personalized treatment has been hugely successful is the discovery of Trastuzumab (Herceptin), history’s most successfully targeted cancer drug. It is prescribed to treat breast cancer induced by over expression of a specific gene (HER2) and is a major pharmacogenetics success story. The drug can shrink tumors, slow disease progression, and increase survival. And unlike most chemotherapy drugs, trastuzumab is a targeted therapy that kills only cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.
We now know through genomics and testing for this mutation that this drug is only effective in roughly 25 per cent of breast tumors. Knowing this and using it only in the right patients generates a tremendous savings of health care dollars. The treatment of broad populations with regimens that do not benefit most patients is not economically sustainable and is increasingly less necessary.
The use of genetic information has played a major role in the journey towards personalized medicine. Decoding genomes will increase our understanding of the genetic makeup of diseases, which could speed up the development of new drugs as well as determining more targeted treatment therapies.
Using personalized medicine to treat HIV/AIDs in Canada
The British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital, British Columbia, has teamed up with a local technology startup company, PHEMI Health Systems, and SAP, to deliver personalized medicine to HIV/AIDs patients based on the genetic signature of the virus that infects each patient.
Dr. Paul Terry, CEO of PHEMI Health Systems, offers a simplified view on what this means for health care professionals: “Over 70 percent of health care information is unstructured and difficult to mine for relevant insight using traditional methods. What we intend to offer health care professionals, essentially, is the ability to turn physician letters and lab results into searchable information, thereby helping to unlock vast amounts of new information for clinicians, analysts and researchers.”
“We’re changing the face of treatment for HIV and AIDS,” explains Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. “This technology will be invaluable to the lives of our patients. We will be able to quickly treat patients by delivering personalized medicine based on their unique strain of the virus. This will help us save time and money while also significantly decreasing the number of new HIV and AIDS cases. For the first time, we shall have access to vast amounts of information and get answers immediately thanks to technology from PHEMI and SAP.”
The future of medicine
Advances in genomics are improving our ability to predict and prevent adverse drug reactions, and mitigate disease conditions. Personalized approaches to healthcare will help eliminate the trial-and-error inefficiencies that inflate healthcare costs and undermine patient care. The hope is that genomic insights will reduce the time it takes to find a treatment down from weeks to minutes, bringing the most effective therapies to patients faster, and improving the lives of people surviving with chronic disease. The bold action taken by the BC Centre for Excellence is a great proof point that forward-thinking Canadian healthcare companies can lead the world in this industry. Doctors and researchers are now envisioned to have a much faster way of treating patients. Working together, we plan on lowering healthcare costs by speeding up treatment plans, improving patient care and addressing chronic disease as a whole.