Medical science may be answer to budget woes

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I have seen transformative innovation pay significant economic dividends in the past. In 1986, the automated DNA sequencer I invented was first brought to market, paving the way for the Human Genome Project completed in 2003. In 2010 alone, human genome sequencing activities generated $67 billion in U.S. economic output and created 310,000 U.S. jobs.

The Human Genome Project helped to catalyze a transformational approach to medicine that has already begun to revolutionize healthcare, and we are quickly approaching a point where the cost to sequence your genome will be equal to what you might pay for a high-tech flat screen TV. Soon, a virtual cloud of billions of health-relevant data points will surround each individual.

The convergence of Big Data, technology and patient-activated social networks has led to what I call P4 Medicine—medicine that is predictive, personalized, preventive and participatory. It will drive a shift from disease-focused to wellness-focused care; it will improve the quality of care delivered to patients through better diagnoses and targeted therapies; it will reduce the skyrocketing costs of healthcare; and it will open the door to new markets and companies in a wellness sector that doesn’t even exist today. 

Here is what is at stake.

P4 Medicine allows us to monitor health and disease at the molecular level in a systems-wide manner. The information so gained allows us to make specific predictions about how to optimize a person’s health, minimize the potential for disease, and craft targeted, early interventions to delay or even prevent disease onset.

P4 Medicine is giving us the clearest picture yet of what could be in our future. While P4 Medicine is in its infancy, like the growth of the Internet, it’s growing up fast. For our nation and the world to fully realize its potential, we must stay on a path of funding critical research that will add to the body of knowledge that allows tomorrow’s medicine to thrive.  

We are on the brink of making this new approach a reality. Today, we already can sequence your genome to unlock the secrets of “actionable gene variants”—those for which there are means available to improve health and stave off disease. We can even sequence the genome of cancerous tumors and match the effective drug treatment to the genetic makeup of the patient’s tumor. We also have made blood a window into health and disease through inexpensive blood screening. One diagnostics company recently developed a blood test to distinguish benign lung nodules from their cancerous counterparts, saving the high financial and human costs of unnecessary surgery and chemotherapy. 

This is just the beginning. Imagine if we could stop Alzheimer’s disease before it ever begins or eradicate diabetes. The U.S. spent $200 billion to care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and $245 billion for those with diabetes in 2012. Curbing these two diseases alone could put a sizable dent in the $2.2 trillion dollars we spend annually on health care.

America holds a leadership position in this medical transformation and with it the potential to reshape healthcare and bring adequate care to all. In time, P4 Medicine will lead to a “democratization” of healthcare inconceivable just a few years ago, bringing down costs to such an extent that preventive healthcare will be accessed by rich and poor alike wherever they reside.

This approach to medicine has the power to improve healthcare, reduce the cost of healthcare and promote innovation. P4 Medicine makes sense for society – and it makes sense for the economy. Let’s not be short-sighted or short change the future path of medicine. The payoff is too great to let it slip by.

Dr. Hood is president of the Institute for Systems Biology. He is a pioneer in the systems approach to biology and medicine, inventor of the automated DNA sequencer, the father of P4 Medicine, and a recipient of the 2011 National Medal of Science presented February 1, 2013 by President Barack Obama.