Risks to personalized medicine seen in U.S. reform

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The federal government’s push to control health costs through comparative effectiveness research could threaten strides in personalized medicine, in which medicines are tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup, the chief of the National Institutes of Health said on Monday.

“There is a potential collision here,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health said at a forum sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Collins, a genetics pioneer tapped by President Barack Obama in July to head the NIH, said studies that lump together large groups of people to test the effectiveness of treatment A versus treatment B run the risk of overlooking clusters of people for whom a drug might have a dramatic effect.

“That’s going to get lost in the wash by considering everybody equivalent, which we know they are not,” said Collins, who helped lead the Human Genome Project that in 2003 produced a sequence of all the DNA in people.

“The antidote to that is pretty straightforward,” said Collins, saying that studies need to include genetic information that allows researchers to find such responses.

Backers of comparative effectiveness research, who include insurers and large employers, see the government-funded studies as a way to learn which treatments work best. But Collins said the studies should be well crafted.

“We need to be mindful of the goal of comparative effectiveness research and not lose all that we have gained in understanding how individuals differ and how that could be factored into better diagnostics and preventive strategies,” Collins told the meeting, which was broadcast on the Internet.


There is already evidence that personalized medicine can help reduce health costs, Collins said, pointing to Genomic Health’s Oncotype DX, a genetic test that can predict the recurrence of breast cancer.

“This test allows those individuals at low risk for recurrence to know they are at low risk and make a decision about whether to forgo chemotherapy, with all of its adverse consequences, based on that information,” Collins said.

He said the test costs $3,500, and most women who get tested and discover they are at low risk decide to forego chemotherapy, saving an average of $2,000 per patient in additional costs from chemotherapy treatment.

“In 2009, roughly 50,000 women are going through this process, predicting we will therefore save the healthcare system $100 million this year based on the availability of this kind of personalized medical test,” Collins said.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told the meeting that many clinical trials are structured to determine if a drug is safe and effective in a large group of patients, but the drugs often leave out the why -- why certain patients benefit while others do not.

The FDA increasingly is approving drugs with companion diagnostic tests using biomarkers -- such as specific proteins or genes -- that improve the odds that a new, high-cost biotechnology drug will work.

She said studies that look at the genetic profile of patients and its role in how drugs work could strengthen a drug’s application, lending more scientific certainty about why a new drug works.

“Perhaps then we could see more new drug applications in the pipeline that are more likely to succeed,” she said.

Editing by Eric Walsh