Is personalized medicine—what some scientists call genetic medicine—a pipe dream or a panacea? Francis Collins, current director of the National Institutes of Health and director of the Human Genome Project, considers this new era “the greatest revolution since Leonardo,” while Nobel Laureate Leland Hartwell compares personalized medicine to a train that has not yet left the station—“a very slow train with a very long way to go . . . before we arrive at our destination.”
There is no denying that new technology, which has triggered an explosion of scientific information, is ushering in a revolution in medicine—for specialists, general practitioners and the public. Anyone can spit in a cup and, for a small fee, learn about his or her individual genetic make-up. But how useful is this information, really, to us or to our doctors? What’s more, how much do we truly want to know—and have others know—about our possible destiny? There is more than we can imagine at stake.
In An Immense New Power to Heal, authors Lee Gutkind and Pagan Kennedy delve into the personal side of personalized medicine and offer the physician’s perspective and the patient’s experience through intimate narratives and case studies. They also offer an intriguing background of the personalized medicine movement including the fascinating personalities of the key scientists involved as well as a glimpse into the in-fighting that accompanies any race for a scientific breakthrough. The result is a highly engaging, lively, and provocative discussion about this revolution in health care, and most importantly, what it really means for patients now and in the future.
The Human Genome Project, which surveyed the entire human hereditary structure, promised to usher in a revolutionary age of medicine. Armed with knowledge of their own genetic flaws, say Gutkind (Almost Human: Making Robots Think) and Kennedy (The First Man-Made Man, a study of two 1940s transsexuals), patients could make early, life-saving decisions and get more targeted treatments. But this troubling account finds that this promise hasn't been realized because thanks to the structure of our health-care system and the complex results genetic tests provide most health-care providers don't use genetic testing. The authors follow the stories of innovative patients and doctors, including Michael Saks, who wanted to know if his family history of pancreatic cancer meant the disease was his destiny; Steve Murphy, the "Gene Sherpa" who set out to be the first private practitioner of personalized medicine; and Nobel winner Leland Hartwell, who helped discover biomarkers that explained the mechanisms of cancer. Gutkind and Kennedy giddily trumpet the extraordinary possibilities of technology and information in preventing sickness. And they're especially optimistic about the role of the Internet in giving patients access to life-saving information and to one another, since ultimately, they claim, it'll be patients who'll nudge doctors into the brave new world of personalized medicine.