We may finally be at the threshold of the age of personalized medicine. In a recent study, scientists were able to predict that a man was at a higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes and over a two-year period tracked his health as he developed the disease. And even better, because they caught it so early, they were able to stave off the diabetes with lifestyle changes. This man’s glucose levels have returned to normal.
Wow. This story highlights the promise of at least one aspect of personalized medicine. By looking at someone’s DNA, you can predict what might go wrong with someone and so keep an eye out for early symptoms. Or maybe even start out with the right lifestyle changes that will keep the disease from developing in the first place.
This study also showed that intensely studying a single person can yield potential benefits for lots of other people. The researchers saw that just before the test subject’s glucose levels spiked, he had a viral infection. No one was really looking for viruses that trigger Type 2 diabetes in people. Now they will. (Keep in mind we don’t yet know if the two are connected or if it was just a coincidence.)
The study also points to the obstacles we still need to overcome to realize the full potential of personalized medicine. The top ones I could think of off the top of my head are our own ignorance, the inconvenience, the expense, and our lack of willpower.
The researchers were able to predict an increased risk for diabetes as well as an increased risk for high triglycerides but very little else. There is certainly more information lurking in his DNA…we just don’t understand our DNA well enough to tease it out yet.
Another related issue is whether we actually do know enough to make good predictions or if we just got lucky here. In other words, was his developing Type 2 diabetes a coincidence or was he really at a higher risk for getting it? He didn’t have any classic risk factors but given that so many people in the U.S. have the disease, it could have been chance. Doing many more studies on lots of different people should give us some idea about how predictive our DNA really is right now.