THE STATESMAN OPINION: The Global South Must Embrace Precision Medicine Now
By Dr. David Ouma
Precision medicine, which tailors medical treatment to the unique characteristics of individual patients, has emerged as a promising approach to healthcare. This is particularly relevant in light of recent discoveries in medicine such as pharmacogenomics, which studies the variation of drug response in individuals due to differences in their genetics.
Precision medicine relies on a detailed understanding of a patient's genetic makeup, lifestyle, and environmental factors to personalize treatment, and has been shown to improve patient outcomes and expedite new discoveries.
In cancer therapy, precision medicine has already accelerated the discovery of novel cancer therapeutics with better safety and efficacy profiles compared to traditional cancer therapeutics. For instance, trastuzumab is used in breast cancer, specifically in HER2-positive breast cancer, which occurs in only 1 in 5 breast cancer patients.
HER2 is a gene that makes a protein that promotes the growth of certain cancer cells including breast cancer cells. Breast cancer cells with higher-than-normal levels of HER2 are called HER2-positive, while those with normal levels are called HER2-negative. The development of drugs like trastuzumab demonstrates the significance of precision medicine.
However, while the developed world has witnessed tremendous successes in precision medicine, the developing world, including Sub-Saharan Africa, has been slow to adopt this approach. Countries in the region continue to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to healthcare, despite evidence indicating greater genetic diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to the larger world. This is not only detrimental to patient outcomes but also a missed opportunity for the region to advance its healthcare system.
To expedite the shift towards precision medicine, Sub-Saharan Africa can take several steps. First, governments and healthcare providers should invest in genetic research to better understand the genetic diversity of the region's population. Robust genome studies will allow for the identification of new molecular biomarkers and prognostic markers, enabling the development of novel therapies and unique treatment plans that take into account the unique genetic makeup of each patient.
Secondly, there is a need to institutionalize clinical trials as the basis of introducing new therapies in the region. Precision medicine is dependent on huge data, which can be generated through clinical trials. It is not sufficient to assume that a particular drug will be safe and effective in a new population based solely on its success in another population. Clinical trials provide the necessary scientific evidence to determine the safety and efficacy of new treatments in a specific population.
Thirdly, Sub-Saharan Africa must invest in healthcare infrastructure that can support precision medicine. A complex, multifaceted infrastructure is needed to support precision medicine, this includes the development of electronic medical record systems that can store and analyze large amounts of patient data, as well as the establishment of specialized clinics and research centers with high computing systems to analyze and evaluate the complex genomic datasets.
Finally, the region should work towards strengthening collaborations and partnerships with other countries and institutions that have made significant strides in precision medicine. These collaborations can facilitate knowledge sharing, resource mobilization, and the development of best practices for precision medicine in the region.
In conclusion, the shift towards precision medicine is not only a global trend but also a necessity for improving healthcare outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region must take concerted efforts to embrace this approach and develop the necessary infrastructure, research, education, and partnerships to make precision medicine a reality for its people. The time for action is now.
[The writer is a pharmacotherapy specialist - firstname.lastname@example.org]