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Science or Science Fiction? The Future of Personalized Medicine

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Healthcare Science & Mathematics

What’s next for personalized medicine and advanced therapies? Northeastern University professor and industry expert, Jared Auclair, shares his predictions.

When we visit the doctor’s office today, it’s usually because we’re experiencing some specific health-related issue. We describe the problem to our physician, and he or she listens to what’s ailing us, possibly runs a few tests, and then provides a diagnosis.

If our doctor can’t provide a diagnosis, then we could be in for weeks or months of time-consuming, sometimes uncomfortable and painful, tests as the medical community tries to identify the problem. After diagnosis, we’re given a treatment plan, which could range from simple bed rest and fluids, to a drug, such as an antibody, or to more invasive surgical procedures.

The current scenario, as I just described, is based on a reactive approach to medicine, where we’re treated only after symptoms present themselves.

I’m a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan, and I often wonder when we’ll be able to use a medical body scanner to get a precise diagnosis instantaneously. Or even more exciting, we could scan our bodies at home daily to detect problems, which would then alert our doctor—bringing us from reactive to proactive medicine, where we could treat disease even before symptoms present themselves. I also wonder when we’ll have the ability to be cured of diseases more efficiently, and based on our own individual biology, as is the case in both movies.

I’m here to tell you: The future is upon us. In the next several years, and decades, we’re going to see a revolution in modern medicine that focuses on treatments for an individual patient—or what we call personalized medicine. Not every drug or treatment plan works for every person; we are all inherently different biologically.

The Future of Personalized Medicine

Leading this revolution in personalized medicine is a new area of medical sciences referred to as advanced therapies. Just last year, there was a breakthrough in this space: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a treatment for patients with a juvenile form of cancer. Cells were removed from a patient and sent to a lab, where they were modified to attack specific cancer cells. Those modified cells were then returned to the very patient they were taken from to attack and kill the cancerous cells.

Advances in gene editing are also underway. In a few short years, we’ll be able to cut out a part of DNA that causes disease and replace it with a healthy strain of DNA. With these advances, however, come several questions about safety and efficacy that need to be addressed. For example, if you remove cells from a patient, you need to manufacture treatment quickly, while also guaranteeing those cells return to the same patient. (No one wants to hear, “The doctor amputated the wrong appendage.”) Also, what safeguards need to be put in place to ensure the drug is safe and not contaminated with foreign toxins?

The stuff of science fiction is, at this very moment, becoming fact-based science and spurring the next 100 years of medical advances. But there are still a lot of opportunities to innovate in this young field, making it an exciting time to be involved in the biotechnology industry. Today’s professionals are providing new, cutting-edge solutions to disease, thus improving mankind’s quality of life.

If you’re interested in learning more about emerging trends in biotechnology, explore our Master of Science in Biotechnology program to discover how a master’s degree can equip you with the skills needed to innovate in this growing field.

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