Taking Medicines

Personalized Medicines

Medicines: One Size Does Not Fit All

Studies have shown that bad reactions to properly prescribed medicines cause a number of hospitalizations each year. Researchers believe that many of these errors show that when it comes to taking medicines, "one size does not fit all."

For example, allergy medicines simply don't work for everyone who takes them. For some people, taking the standard dosage of a prescription pain reliever such as codeine offers no pain relief, and can even cause side effects that are uncomfortable or life-threatening.

As the body ages, fat and muscle content change, affecting how the body absorbs and processes drugs. Many other factors -- exercise habits, diet, and general state of health -- also influence how a person responds to medications.

Genes and Proteins Can Affect Your Response to Medicines

Another key factor is heredity -- the genes we inherit from our parents and other ancestors. Genes can influence the way people respond to many types of medicines, such as Tylenol#3®, which is acetaminophen plus codeine; antidepressants like Prozac®, also called fluoxetine; and many blood pressure and asthma medicines.

Your genes determine the shape and function of your proteins. As drugs travel through the body, they interact with dozens of proteins.

Everyone’s genes are slightly different, so everyone’s proteins are different. Variations in some proteins can affect the way we respond to medicines. Such proteins include those that help the body absorb, metabolize, or eliminate drugs.

What Is Pharmacogenomics?

Many scientists around the country are conducting research to understand how genes affect the way people respond to medicines. This type of research is called pharmacogenomics.

As pharmacogenomics research progresses, it will become increasingly important to identify all the possible variations in genes that play a role in drug response. To identify which versions of these genes a person has, researchers examine DNA from that person. An easy, painless, and risk-free way to obtain DNA is from mouth cells that stick to a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of a volunteer's cheek.

Uncovering differences in people's genetic backgrounds will help doctors prescribe the right medicine in the right amount for each person, making medicines more safe and effective for everyone.

Scientists will also better understand the role that genes play in causing or contributing to diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and many others. Research in pharmacogenomics will help scientists make future medicines as safe and effective as possible.