NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Private Genetic Research Leading To Personalized Drugs

April 16, 1999

An alliance of ten of the world's largest drug companies is launching a two-year, $45 million program that will enable them to develop drugs tailor-made to treat individuals based on their genetic makeup. Currently, drugs are developed and administered on a one-size-fits-all basis.

But if the research is successful, medical specialists would be able to identify why certain genes allow some drugs work with certain patients and not with others.

  • For example, Bristol-Myers is sponsoring research using existing gene markers to search for genes that cause or increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
  • Ever-so-slight genetic variations between human beings predispose some people to certain diseases.
  • The drug makers plan to release their findings to the public so they won't be exclusively controlled by small biotech companies or even large drug makers rushing to produce their own private gene databases.
  • The mapping project is separate from the Human Genome Project sponsored by the federal government.

Even the best medicines on the drug market now work on only 50 percent to 70 percent of the patients who get them. At the same time, some patients experience grave side effects from certain drugs, while others don't -- a function of their genetic makeup.

For example, a schizophrenic drug developed by Novartis -- one of the most powerful ever invented -- causes a potentially deadly blood disorder in 1.3 percent of patients who take it. So it is only used as a last resort, and those on it must submit to weekly blood tests. If researchers can identify the gene responsible, they can avoid using the treatment on at-risk patients, while those for whom it is safe could skip the blood tests.

Source: Robert Langreth and Michael Waldholz, "New Era of Personalized Medicine," Wall Street Journal, April 16, 1999.


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