Precision medicine can become a reality through knowledge sharing and collaboration
By Ihab Younis, Assistant Teaching Professor, Biological Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar
A few weeks ago, I was honored to be part of the first symposium for genomics in clinical practice in Qatar. This collaboration between HBKU’s College of Health and Life Sciences and the Qatar Council for Health Practitioners brought together geneticists, researchers, technicians and health care professionals to share perspectives on genetics and precision medicine.
To understand precision medicine, it is helpful to understand the basics of cell biology. DNA is a blueprint for the cell to perform different functions, like producing enzymes, proteins, or hormones. If something happens to scramble that blueprint, the cells may not be able to function properly. This can lead to disease, including cancer.
When we say cancer, however, remember that all cancers are not the same. Within breast cancer, for example, there are several subtypes, and each subtype is caused by different genetic changes. In precision medicine, the patient’s genome is sequenced in order to find these changes. Doctors can then choose treatments based on each patient’s specific genetic changes.
Right now there are several obstacles to using precision medicine methods more widely. The first is the problem with a vast amount of data. Sequencing is easy and relatively inexpensive, but what do you do with the data? How do you filter it? How do you figure out what changes are causing disease? This is complicated, and it takes a lot of computing power and expertise to sort through and figure it all out.
When we are able to determine the genetic changes, we have many case studies where patients had success with targeted therapies. However for many genetic changes, we do not yet have the drugs to target them. It might take 20 years to go from an idea to generating a drug, at a cost of millions or billions of dollars.
The genomics is progressing very fast, but we’re only at the understanding level.
The application, and the translation of knowledge into medicine, is lagging.
I believe that the key to advancing this area of medicine is more collaboration and sharing of knowledge. The more that scientists and practitioners understand each other’s perspectives, the better treatment we can provide. We’re hoping to merge these ideas at some point in the future, so everyone is working together. The more work we do, like this symposium training, the more patients are going to benefit with more effective, more accurate treatments.
Ihab Younis has an ongoing National Priorities Research Program grant from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF). His research focuses on establishing a meaningful, significant, and testable link between deregulated intron splicing and breast cancer. The goal of this project is to add to the repertoire of cancer biomarkers, which will have direct impact on diagnosis, and will provide novel therapeutic targets and approaches to deal with breast cancer.