A 53-year-old woman - let’s call her Alice - comes to her doctor’s office with pain, aching, and masses in her abdomen. The doctor suspects cancer but cannot be sure. Normally, the doctor would start a long string of tests, leaving the patient to suffer and worry for weeks. However, this one tries a new approach and orders Alice to have her DNA - the genetic blueprint that makes each of us unique - examined. The DNA test shows a mistake in one part of the blueprint that scientists know causes a type of breast cancer. Armed with this information, the doctor decides to test and confirm the cancer, and treat Alice as if she has breast cancer. The masses in her abdomen start to subside within weeks.

Precision medicine is a more tailored and precise way of diagnosing and treating disease, based on a deeper understanding of a person’s biological makeup - including the information in their DNA - and how they live their lives. Collecting this information is becoming cheaper and easier.

Mapping out a person's genetic code is becoming cheaper
Image: https://www.genome.gov

Data storage and analysis advances are critical to supporting the growth of precision medicine. The US and Europe are leaders, with Asian countries such as China rapidly increasing their investments. The field of precision medicine is anticipated to be worth well over $100 billion by 2025, with pharmaceutical companies making the biggest investments.

What does precision medicine mean for you and me?

A major goal of precision medicine is to improve people’s health outcomes. Imagine if more people are diagnosed quickly and correctly, like Alice, and given the right treatment fast. You will spend less time in doctors’ offices, have more peace of mind knowing what is wrong, and experience fewer side effects from trial-and-error approaches to finding the correct treatment.

Will precision medicine cost a lot of money?

This is an open question. Identifying a disease and treatment quickly, or identifying people at risk for developing a disease, can reduce the number of visits made to doctors and hospitals. This saves money spent on unnecessary procedures and treatments. However, there is a risk that new or improved tools to screen for and diagnose diseases, and drugs that are more tailored and precise to a specific disease, will come with hefty price tags. One reason is that it costs a lot to discover and test new therapies, while the number of people for whom the treatment will work can be very small due to more precise targeting.

These prices may fall over time due to technological advances, competition and reimbursement policies.

Is precision medicine coming to my doctor’s office?

Precision medicine approaches are already available and used by doctors in certain fields. They are becoming more commonly used to help diagnose and treat cancer, and offer great hope for other conditions such as depression and heart disease. However, we still have a lot of work to do to understand the biological and genetic basis for many diseases, to prepare our healthcare workers and systems for new technologies and to ensure that precision medicine is affordable.

What can I do to advance precision medicine?

You can ask your doctor if, based on your family history or other risk factors, you should have a genetic test to guide the diagnosis and treatment of a medical condition such as cancer. However, tests are not available for every condition, nor are they always 100% accurate. If you are comfortable, sharing your genomic and other health data with scientists and healthcare professionals is important for helping them identify new genetic mutations, tests and treatments. Before contributing your information, ask how they will protect your data, and whether they will report back to you if they discover something worthwhile.

The World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is tackling these issues through pilot projects that develop, test, and scale new regulatory and governance frameworks designed to accelerate precision medicine and ensure societal benefits while minimizing risks.