The UK's Royal Society is launching a year-long investigation into the potential of pharmacogenetics: drug treatments tailored to a person's genetic make-up. The study, headed by geneticist Sir David Weatherall, will look at when and if 'personalised medicine' will become a reality. It will also assess whether healthcare providers in the UK and elsewhere can implement the necessary technologies, and ask pharmaceutical companies how much it will cost to develop them.
Pharmacogenetics has often been touted as the future of healthcare, but some scientists have expressed reservations about whether such technology will ever live up to the hype, what it might cost, and how it would impact on healthcare systems. Weatherall said that the new study would look at whether pharmacogenetics is 'a scientifically achievable aim, be it five, ten or 25 years from now'. Currently, there is only one commercial diagnostic test available aimed at measuring individual drug responses: the 'AmpliChip CYP450', launched recently by Roche Diagnostics.
It is claimed that advances in pharmacogenetics will mean a drop in the number of adverse drug reactions, and an end to the 'trial and error' approach currently used to prescribe medicines. But, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper, some fear that since drug company profits depend on 'blockbuster' drugs taken by millions of people, it may prove too costly for them to develop a vast array of individually tailored medicines.
A report on the ethical and policy issues surrounding pharmacogenetics, published by the Nuffield Trust last year, identified reduced availability of some medicines as a potential area of concern. Meanwhile, a report on pharmacogenetics carried out by the Department of Health entitled 'My very own medicine: What must I know?' cautioned that 'media excitement about genetic applications may be exaggerating investment and research activity' in this area. The results of the Royal Society inquiry are due to be published next summer. Individuals and organisations who wish to contribute evidence should contact the society, or visit its website.