'Personalized medicine' gets $67.5M research boost

The federal health minister has announced $67.5 million in funding for research into "personalized medicine," which tailors treatment to a patient's genetics and environment.

Individual approach could improve health outcomes and reduce costs

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq listens to speakers before announcing funding for personalized medicine at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government is pledging up to $67.5 million for research into "personalized medicine," which tailors treatment to a patient's genetics and environment.

The funds will flow through Genome Canada, the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal government's health research agency.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Minister of State for Science Gary Goodyear made the announcement at the University of Ottawa's health campus Tuesday.

The field of personalized medicine is touted as having the potential to transform the way patients are treated. It looks at the genetic makeup of a person, the patient's environment and the exact course of a particular disease so that an appropriate and effective treatment can be tailored for that individual.

The idea is to move from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that is designed for a specific person and relies on the genetic signatures, or biomarkers, of both the patient and the disease.

Proponents of personalized medicine say it is likely to change the way drugs are developed, how medicines are prescribed and generally how illnesses are managed. They say it will shift the focus in health care from reaction to prevention, improve health outcomes, make drugs safer and mean fewer adverse drug reactions, and reduce costs to health-care systems.

"The potential to understand a person's genetic makeup and the specific character of their illness in order to best determine their treatment will significantly improve the quality of life for patients and their families and may show us the way to an improved health-care system and even save costs in certain circumstances," Aglukkaq said in a news release.

Research projects could last four years

The sequencing of the human genome paved the way for personalized medicine and there have been calls for more research funding so that the discoveries in laboratories can be translated further into the medical field so they will benefit patients more.

Identifying a person's genetic profile, for example, could then indicate a susceptibility to a certain disease, if the biomarkers of that disease have also been discovered. If people know they are genetically at risk of an illness they can take actions to prevent it, and their health-care providers can monitor for it.

Cancer patients could be pre-screened to determine if chemotherapy would work for them, which could not only save a lot of money on expensive treatments but also prevent pain and suffering for patients.

Genome Canada is leading the research initiative, in collaboration with Cancer Stem Cell Consortium and CIHR which on Tuesday launched its Personalized Medicine Signature Initiative. CIHR is committing up to $22.5 million to the large-scale initiative with the other two partners, but it will be providing more funding for other projects under its personalized medicine program.

The research projects are aiming to bring together biomedical, clinical, population health, health economics, ethics and policy researchers to identify areas that are best suited to personalized medicine.

Oncology, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders, diabetes and obesity, arthritis, pain, and Alzheimer’s disease are all considered to be areas that hold promise for personalized medicine.

Funding will also go to projects that are aimed at developing more evidence-based and cost-effective approaches to health care.

Researchers can get up to four years of funding, but 50 per cent of their requested funding must be matched from another source, such as a provincial government or from the academic or private sectors.

Genome Canada, CIHR and the cancer consortium will invest a maximum of $5 million in each individual project.

The successful applicants for the $67.5 million worth of funding won't be announced until December.