"Francis Collins, director of the United States' National Institutes of Health, guides us through the upheaval in his new book The Language of Life – DNA and the Revolution in Personalised Medicine. As he puts it, 'we are on the leading edge of a true revolution in medicine, one that promises to transform the traditional 'one size fits all' approach into a much more powerful strategy that considers each individual as unique and as having special characteristics that should guide an approach to staying healthy. But you have to be ready to embrace this new world'.
This seismic shift toward genetic personalised medicine promises to give each of us insight into our deepest personal identity – our genetic selves – and let us sip the elixir of life in the form of individually tailored testing and drugs. But can we really believe these promises?
Genetic personalised medicine isn't the only important new development. Commercial ventures like private blood banks play up the uniqueness of your baby's umbilical-cord blood.
Enhancement technologies like deep-brain stimulation – 'Botox for the brain' – promote the idea that you have a duty to be the best 'me' possible. In fact, modern biotechnology is increasingly about 'me' medicine, the 'brand' being individual patients' supposed distinctiveness.
But all these technologies remain more hype than reality – and sometimes dangerous hype. Personalised genetic testing is now under investigation by the US Congress and the US Food and Drug Administration for misleading customers into thinking we know much more than we actually do about the link between particular genes and the probability of developing particular illnesses.
Likewise, privately-banked cord blood has been shown to be clinically less effective than publicly banked and pooled blood, leading to two sceptical reports from leading obstetricians' associations warning against its routine collection at childbirth. And enhancement technologies, supposedly enabling us to become 'trans-human', have attracted much publicity, but remain largely speculative.
Credit for the greatest advances in human health and longevity over the last two centuries should go to 'we' medicine, not 'me' medicine. Public-health and sanitation programmes, polio and smallpox vaccinations and tuberculosis screening in schools and workplaces have contributed the most to improved health in the Western world and beyond".
To read the op-ed in full, please click here.
(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)