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Precision medicine set to shake up the future

15 August 2016
New research could transform the way that medicine is delivered

Thanks to new research in precision medicine, advances that were once only imaginable as science fiction are becoming closer to our health reality.

Test tubes used for medical research.

In 2084, the aim of our medical care system will not just be to treat sick people – rather, the primary focus will be on keeping people healthy for as long as possible. Personalised data – likely collected using novel technology – will give you early warning signs to correct your health trajectory long before you feel unwell.

This is the vision Professor David James will explore as part of his Sydney Science Festival talk, 2084: How future medicine will create a happier world on Wednesday 17 August.

Professor James will draw upon his research at the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre to show how advances in genomic sequencing, biochemistry and bioinformatics could transform the way medicine is delivered in the future.

Today's 'one size fits all' approach to medical care is not sufficient in tackling or preventing chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other obesity-related diseases, Professor James will argue.

"Our vision for future health care is that we will not only be able to predict what diseases each individual will acquire later in life, but also what they can do to prevent this from happening," said Professor James, a molecular cell biology specialist.

Delving into case studies and the latest research in the field, Professor James will explain the possibilities of precision medicine, and how advances that were once only imaginable as science fiction are becoming closer to our health reality.

He will also describe his research team's groundbreaking work in developing a new platform to help scientists routinely measure more than 5000 different molecules in human blood as an example of the potential for precision medicine to guide more targeted medical interventions.

People today are worried about the consequences of sharing their personal information in fear of George Orwell's 'Big Brother' watching our every move. But we don't have to take a dim view of the future – there's much to be optimistic about.

"Combining these measurements with other information about individuals – such as sleep, diet and activity – will lead to a data revolution in health care. For the first time, people will receive accurate information about what kinds of food they should be eating or whether they should be exercising in order to steer their lives towards optimal health," said Professor James.

"On top of this, they will receive information about which medications they are best suited for in the event that they do get sick. Currently, no such information is available to doctors and this often leads to 'trial and error' style treatment – this is where precision medicine can be revolutionary."

Starting with 1000 participants, the study will be one of the largest of its kind ever attempted, focusing on how different people's genetic backgrounds make them better suited for specific dietary or physical environments, as well as certain medications.

"There's a whole host of other factors governing who we are as individuals: how our mother behaved and treated us when we were in the womb, our early life experiences, whether we smoke – all of these things cumulatively add up and conspire to govern our health outcomes," said Professor James.

"Every one of us is different as individuals with a unique genetic profile and a distinct optimal health environment. You might have a mutation in a gene that will make you sick, but only if you behave in a certain way. If you're behaving in a different way, then actually that mutation may not be relevant.

"We already know that some drug therapies are effective for certain diabetes sufferers while other individuals do not respond to these same medications. Yet we have no way of knowing which way a person will respond."

In an age of big data, genomic sequencing and rapid technological change, there's never been a better time to pursue what many have long considered only in the remit of science fiction, said Professor James.

"Many people have Fitbits and record health data about themselves, but they don’t actually do anything with these data. For precision medicine to work it will require teaching people how to take control of their personal data, in consultation with specialised health coaches, to help people understand how lifestyle factors intersect with their unique genetic profile," he said.

"People today are worried about the consequences of sharing their personal information in fear of George Orwell's 'Big Brother' watching our every move. But we don't have to take a dim view of the future – there's much to be optimistic about."

Emily Cook

Media and PR Adviser

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Media and PR Adviser (International)

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