Take a peek inside your prescription. Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr Creative Commons
Pop quiz: cover up your prescription label and try to recall everything you know about your medication. What exactly is in that little orange bottle, and why was it prescribed in the first place? What chemical processes are set in motion from the moment you swallow the pill? Why will it work for you, and not your neighbor with the exact same condition?
If you can’t answer any of these questions, it’s time for some genetic testing. That’s according to Bob Bean, president and CEO of Harmonyx, a Memphis-based company that’s “on a mission to personalize medicine.”
“If you have the genetics of the patient, and you can match them to the genetics of the medicine, then you have the opportunity to bypass all of the trial and error that typically happens when drugs are prescribed,” he says.
Harmonyx uses an automated genotyping system to deliver genetic test results to any patient who wants to ensure that their genes mesh well with their prescription.
According to Bean, the process works like this: clients take a quick cheek swab, mail it to the company’s headquarters, and Harmonyx analyzes the patients’ DNA to asses how they'll deal with certain drugs.
“Based on the combination of those genes and the markers within them, we can match them up to drugs that move through [specific] human bodies.”
Bean insists that this movement is a highly differentiated, personalized process that will make or break the effectiveness of any drug – and Americans, who consume 80% of the world’s supply of pain medication, shouldn’t be messing around.
“Yes, the drugs are what they are, but so are you,” says Bean, emphasizing equal attention to both sides of the equation. “If your liver is made up of certain factors that are coded by your genome, Vicodin might be enhanced by your liver, or significantly diminished by it.”
“So the goal of pharmacogenomics is to match the drug that will process best in your liver…that’s the miracle of genetics.”
Considering Americans’ recent hunger for personalization, the idea that we don’t already take a more attentive approach to medicine is a head-scratcher. We customize the make-up of our cell phones, curriculums, wardrobes, and cars with obsessive diligence… but when it comes to the chemicals in our bodies, we’re cavalier - at least in Bean’s eyes.
“We want to make [medicine] far more specialized,” he says, citing President Obama’s mention of precision medicine in this year’s State of the Union Address. “The ability to have patients be dosed precisely for how they’re made, and not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Bean believes the only reason this has not yet happened on a large scale is “the way the federal government has structured genetic testing” -- doctors cannot feasibly run tests out of their offices. That’s why Harmonyx now partners local pharmacies and physicians to work together on deciding the best-fit dose.
“There’s the possibility of a female whose 10-year old son has been through the diagnostic processes for ADHD for the last year,” Bean envisions. “If she’s standing at a counter with a pharmacist and is told there’s an $89 test that will tell her which ADHD med has the best shot…why would you want to spend another 60-90 days on the first prescription given, hoping it’ll work?”
The company foresees a “dramatic change” in the way Americans handle pharmaceutical therapy – perhaps as soon as the next decade.
“I would dare say that, 10 years from now, you won’t be taking many medicines without taking a genomic look at who you are before you swallow them.”