Conclusions from Focus @Helmholtz: What are the Benefits of Personalized Medicine?

On June 12th the Helmholtz Association invited the public to a panel discussion at the Berlin Forum on Friedrichstraße. This was the second event in the series "Focus@Helmholtz" and was entitled “Show me your genes, and I will tell you what disease you have – What are the benefits of personalized medicine?". Professor Hans-Ulrich Häring, a DZD board member was one of the panelists on the podium. The conclusion of the panel of experts was rather subdued: The previous elation and expectations have given way to a more realistic assessment.


Many scientists had predicted a bright future for the new treatment approach: Through genetic testing of an individual, in the future doctors would be able to recognize a predisposition to certain diseases – and then develop a tailored treatment accordingly.
Only a few weeks ago, media across the globe reported about the decision of the US actress Angelina Jolie to have her breasts removed out of fear of developing cancer. Her mother had died of breast cancer, and doctors were able to demonstrate, based on her genes, that Jolie also had a greatly increased cancer risk.

Genetic testing extremely rare
Donna Dickenson, medical ethicist of the University of London and keynote speaker at the event, immediately dampened optimism in the opening lecture. "What we were once promised has at most only partially been confirmed by existing scientific studies,” she said. Even in the U.S., where personalized medicine is more common, only two percent of the population has undergone genetic testing, for which in part they had to shoulder huge costs. In Europe, genetic testing is performed much less often. Moreover, even vemurafenib, the flagship drug used in skin cancer patients who have such a disposition, helps only one fourth of the patients. "For these, however, the average gain of seven months of life means a great deal."

Broad, diversified approach needed
Hans Ulrich Häring, diabetes researcher at the Tübingen Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases of Helmholtz Zentrum München, warned against reducing personalized medicine to the analysis and treatment based on genetic characteristics, as so often occurs in the public discussion. In his opinion, for these novel treatments it is equally important to consider the individual circumstances and habits when analyzing the personal disease risk. "This personalized approach is much more, promises much more,” Häring said. However, he went on to say: "It is also true that we have a very gradual development here, slower than we once thought."

Social consequences
Donna Dickenson drew attention to the possible social consequences of rising drug costs: The more a drug is tailored to a specific group of patients, the more expensive it inevitably becomes – and perhaps also the more pressure is put on healthcare systems. In the end, not all patients may receive the treatment they need. Tobias Eichhorn of the Pfizer Pharma Group countered: “While it is true that costs for development and production may rise, with the new drugs more people can be cured.”