What’s in a Name? A Lot, When It Comes to ‘Precision Medicine’

2/4/13Follow @xconomy

Personalized medicine was supposed to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was going to be the payoff our society would see after investing in the Human Genome Project and so much other biomedical research. While most people on the street can’t say what it means, anybody can understand the standard definition on Wikipedia. It’s about “the customization of healthcare, with decisions and practices being tailored to the individual patient by use of genetic or other information.”

But just as the concept started gaining impressive momentum last year, a movement is afoot to redefine it under a new banner of “Precision Medicine.”

Normally, I’m not that interested in semantic debates like “Personalized vs. Precision Medicine,” and this one carries the whiff of one of those endless trivial quarrels. I first heard about “precision medicine” a few weeks ago when talking with a newly hired GE executive, Risa Stack. My initial reaction was that it sounded like a vague attempt at corporate rebranding that might be about distancing the company from the hype around “personalized medicine.” Even worse, I thought it might represent a weak backpedaling from the hard social and policy decisions that must underpin any effort to deliver real personalized medicine.

Turns out “precision medicine” has been gaining currency in academic, clinical, and corporate circles for a few months. While a few friends on Twitter have helpfully pointed out this term has been around for years, “precision medicine” started picking up steam in a report from the National Research Council in November. The committee that wrote the report was co-chaired by two of the most influential names in cancer research—UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann and Charles Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Consider some of the actions that have occurred since that report:

—One of America’s most influential corporations, GE, started using the “Precision Medicine” term itself. GE has also recently hired three Silicon Valley venture capitalists, including Stack and former Mohr Davidow partners Sue Siegel and Rowan Chapman, in the movement to help it identify the opportunities, especially in new molecular diagnostics, imaging, and analytics/software.

—Two of the country’s leading medical centers—Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital—announced last week they are going to work together on a new Institute for Precision Medicine, which they described as “a translational medicine research hub that will use leading edge technology to create targeted treatments based on patients’ genetic profiles.”

—Desmond-Hellmann’s home institution of UCSF announced that it will hold a summit in May with a mission to “Drive the Precision Medicine Revolution.” UCSF said it aims to “harness the wealth of data available from the human genome and the subsequent wave of research into the molecular basis of disease and integrate it on both a personal and global level with information on environmental factors and patients’ electronic medical records.”

By this point, you’re probably wondering, how is any of this different from personalized medicine? There’s a fairly concise definition in the National Research Council report, which essentially argues that precision medicine is a broader, more inclusive term than “personalized.” Many people, myself included, have used the “personalized medicine” phrase in a broad sense to include … Next Page »

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  • Paul Sonnier

    I still say Dr. Eric Topol has it right in saying “Individualized Medicine” is better than Personalized Medicine, which connotes Concierge Medicine. Precision Medicine seems like what medicine has always been improving in doing. Not exactly a term capturing how medicine is evolving to treat each individual.

  • John

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  • Phil Eidelberg

    Does “subpopulation” mean the same as “phenotype”?

    • Mike Thompson, MDPhD

      No. A subpopulation could be a genotype that does not have a phenotypic correlate.