From Galen to modern times, individual variation has frustrated the ability of physicians to treat disease at its genetic roots; instead, doctors have relied on empirical and statistical methods to establish whether or not a given treatment for cancer or depression was actually achieving its intended effect. Along the way, patients may have had to endure harsh side-effects or shuffle between several treatments before finding a medicine that really works for them—if one were available.
The gap between medicine as an art and a true science may finally be closing. The decoding of the human genome has energized hopes for truly personalized medicine. For instance, it may someday be possible not only to treat colon cancer with drugs that are matched to the molecular signature of a patient’s tumor, but to actively prevent colon cancer with relatively inexpensive and safe medicines.
However, the promise of personalized medicine won’t become a reality unless markets and regulatory environments encourage and reward companies for the long term, expensive research required to move innovative new products from the lab bench to the bedside. Policies that seem attractive in the short term—like weakening patent protections for biotech medicines or price controls for new drugs—will slow the pace of innovation and leave future patients exposed to the ravages of cancer and Alzheimer’s longer than necessary.