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Precision Medicine Initiative Raises Hopes for Personalized Medicine

by Amanda Conschafter, blog editor

The first anniversary of the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative gave participants time to reflect on the year’s progress – and contemplate the challenges ahead. The project is designed to study 1 million people’s genomes in an effort to develop more targeted treatments for diseases such as cancer. But before precision medicine can, as President Obama envisions, “get the right treatment to the right patient at the right time,” health care coverage and medical data systems must catch up to medical technology.

Though genomic sequencing now costs only a fraction of what it did in the early 2000s, the procedure is still far from standard care. Programs such as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute complete genetic profiling on every cancer patient, but they have philanthropic funding support to do so. Average patients rarely have insurance plans that cover genomic sequencing.

Many health plans maintain their bottom lines by driving patients to the least costly care option. So an approach to care that requires the upfront expense of genomic sequencing, even with the promise of targeted medications, may be a tough sell for many insurers. The American Cancer Society says it’s “still not clear” if insurance coverage will be a barrier to personalized health care.

Meanwhile, the medical community must also rethink how it stores and tracks medical data. That includes addressing concerns about privacy, which may deter some patients from agreeing to have their data used for precision medicine research.

But for now, the initiative has prominent backing and robust funding. The president’s effort is supported by academic institutions, health care systems and pharmaceutical companies as well as nonprofit and private sector organization such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services. The initiative also dovetails with Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” a federal effort to eliminate cancer using immuno-oncology therapies and genomic mapping.

[Read: Improving Patient Access to Immuno-Oncology Therapies]

The Precision Medicine Initiative had $215 million budgeted for fiscal year 2016, $130 million of which went to the National Institutes of Health for its precision medicine databank. The president will ask Congress for $755 million in initial funding for the cancer moonshot effort.

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