Precision Medicine: The next trend in healthcare innovation
Current trends in healthcare technology will deliver future innovations to personalize healthcare. Identifying the right trends can benefit your investments.
The world anxiously awaits a vaccine for COVID-19—a one-size-fits-all solution to stop the pandemic now sweeping the globe. But also on the horizon is a supremely customized approach to healthcare that promises to transform how we diagnose and treat disease: precision medicine.
Many think this is the future of healthcare and that it is fast approaching. Precision medicine aims to deliver the most effective treatment tailored to a specific patient at the most opportune time to achieve the best possible result. This medical model depends on marrying a deep understanding of each person with comprehensive knowledge of all treatment options that might work for that individual, including at the genetic, molecular or cellular level.
It’s thought that such tailored treatments could cure debilitating and/or deadly diseases with far less risk of the serious side effects often associated with more standardized treatments.
While up until this point, technology limitations have stymied progress in the field of precision medicine, new big data and artificial intelligence (AI) tools may now allow scientists to proceed faster than ever before. Data—and the ability to store, secure, process and interpret vast amounts of it in a way the human brain simply cannot—will be critical in this transformation of healthcare. And that bodes well for companies that can provide and put to use the necessary technology.
Also essential will be a strong commitment from governments, healthcare agencies and regulators, which seems to be taking shape.
We explore where precision medicine can take us, what it will take to get there and the potential investment implications.
Examining the precision medicine trend in healthcare
Precision medicine, over time, has the potential to bring targeted, life-saving treatments to countless individuals suffering from a wide range of previously incurable diseases, without destroying the quality of the lives it saves.
Consider one early example from 2018—a treatment called “milasen,” named for the eight-year-old who received this custom treatment for Batten’s disease. Milasen is believed to be the first drug developed for a unique, individual patient.1 Milasen is essentially a custom piece of RNA2 designed by doctors to block certain negative effects of a mutated gene within the patient’s DNA. The treatment worked, and the positive impact of the treatment was visible in the patient within months.
What about cancer? Can a similar method be used to create precision medicines that could treat 18.1 million new cancer cases and potentially prevent another 9.6 million deaths worldwide, as seen in 2018?3
Precision medicine is already being closely studied for its potential in oncology. Doctors may be able to use it to create targeted cancer treatments that attack specific cells within the body. As opposed to chemotherapy, precision oncology may be less likely to harm healthy human cells because it takes aim only at specific tumor cells. A treatment capable of bypassing the harmful side effects of chemotherapy could be a lifesaver to many of the over 1.7 million patients diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States.4
Precision medicine also holds some promise in treating COVID-19. Researchers have found that a variety of characteristics such as age, previous conditions and some less obvious markers appear to be linked to the recovery time of the disease. For example, scientists are currently exploring the link between the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and higher testosterone levels.5 Essentially, COVID-19 can use two human proteins to enter human cells, one being TMPRSS2. Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that the number of TMPRSS2 molecules in cells can be reduced by lowering testosterone, indicating that drugs that reduce testosterone levels could help lessen the severity of COVID-19. Depending on findings, this could lead to the development of a precision medicine able to treat COVID-19 infections by lowering testosterone in individuals with specific levels of the hormone.
And that is just the beginning. The possibilities extend to conditions like genetic blindness, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, heart disease and more.
Applying precision medicine innovations to all healthcare solutions
For precision medicine to become a viable option for everyone, data is needed, lots of data—as well as the commitment of governments, healthcare agencies and regulators to provide a supportive framework.
To design treatments for individuals or specific groups, scientists need a vast dataset of patient histories to analyze which treatments work best for which patients.
One major effort to amass the breadth and depth of required data is the “All of Us” campaign. This research program run through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working to enroll over 1 million Americans into a health data-gathering program aimed at furthering the cause of precision medicine. Participants in this 10-year study will be requested to provide a myriad of information on their medical histories, lifestyles, environment and behavior. The data will be used to explore how these factors can impact the vulnerability of specific patients to various diseases and which treatments have the greatest potential for different patient types. As of the end of 2019, the “All of Us” program had enrolled approximately 275,000 participants.6
The NIH is not the only organization developing large sets of patient medical data to help develop the field of precision medicine. Other research includes the Yale Precision Medicine Initiative, which aims to sequence genomes from 100,000 patients7 and collect other patient medical history. Similarly, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service and Genomics England are combining research efforts to sequence genomes from 5 million people by 2025.8
Governments and health officials have taken notice of the huge potential for precision medicine as well the incredible hurdles in its path. Health agencies in the United States and other countries have already committed to building out massive healthcare data infrastructures to accommodate scientific research in precision medicine. On the regulatory side, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes the new regulatory issues likely to come with these transformational developments in healthcare. However, the FDA also recognizes the tremendous promise of precision medicine, not just for the distant future, but also for the coming years. In 2019, Acting FDA Commissioner Sharpless said, “In just the past few years, we’ve seen transformative technologies like artificial intelligence, whole genomic sequencing, and cell- or gene-based therapies result in FDA-approved or cleared products that are advancing precision medicine—delivering the right intervention to the right patient, at the right time.”9
While the FDA is still working to develop answers to the regulatory questions, there is no doubt the field of precision medicine represents a new frontier in healthcare innovation.
Investment impact of healthcare trends and innovations
Several types of companies may help drive the development of precision medicine.
Data-driven medical research companies, particularly those with prowess in AI and machine learning, will lead the way in researching new precision medicines for patients. Just as financial firms can determine a consumer’s credit score based on almost every aspect of a person’s financial history, healthcare companies may soon be able to analyze a patient’s entire medical history to determine which treatment could be best for that unique individual. These are the companies that will be able to take vast datasets and interpret them to determine which treatment options to explore and conduct further research on for any given patient. Large pharmaceutical companies that focus on cell therapy and/or immune-oncology treatments could be key in this category.
Medical diagnostics and analysis companies could lead the way toward the development and implementation of precision health. Medical testing and analytics companies that focus on gene sequencing, specialized medical screening through DNA analysis, or molecular modification as remedies could all bring cutting-edge treatments to the healthcare industry. Companies in this category would not only need advanced medical technology, but also the capability to examine vast datasets of medical records and trials.
Focus your healthcare investments on enabling technologies
Innovations in big data, AI and medical science are leading us to a previously unimaginable frontier—where treatments for some of the most devastating diseases can be uniquely designed to match an individual patient’s personal profile and genetic makeup. Think of a world where tailored treatments, even for previously incurable diseases, can be delivered with potentially minimal side effects. From so many angles, that is a world worth investing in.