New gene therapy for heart disease and diabetes: how will hypochondriacs react?

    18 May 2015

    The drugs giant AstraZeneca (AZ) has signed a deal with heart researchers in Canada which pushes forward the project to prevent – and even reverse – heart disease and diabetes by identifying the genes that put people at risk.

    There’s been a lot of talk about ‘personalised medicine’ that offers us our own therapy tailored to our own weaknesses – specifically, the genetic time-bombs lurking our DNA. Until now, GPs have looked at our family history of heart disease, cancer, diabetes etc and (at least inwardly) shrugged. There’s only so much they can do.

    The AZ deal with the Montreal Heart Institute will produce one of the largest genetic screenings to date. To quote PharmaTimes:

    [The Heart Institute] will genotype up to 80,000 DNA samples from AZ’s biobank, seeking genes linked with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, their complications and treatment outcomes.

    The groups say the knowledge gained from genotyping the samples … will drive understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying these conditions and their complications, and feed the development of new medicines tailored to treat subsets of patients with particular genetic profiles.

    Meanwhile, AZ has done a separate deal with Abbott Laboratories, who will ‘develop and commercialise’ tests of patients with severe asthma who could benefit from AZ’s new drug tralokinumab, a ‘human monoclonal antibody’ (details here).

    We can’t be sure that these two deals will translate into effective therapies in the relatively near future, though that’s obviously the intention. But this is the sort of immensely complicated groundwork – mainly based around genetic analysis – that needs to be done before the much-hyped personalised medicine can become a reality.

    The benefits could be enormous: your GP will possess far more useful information about you when you walk into his surgery. But there is a downside. Do you really want to know, perhaps from a young age, that your genes are pushing you in the direction of a serious disease that can be addressed by tailored information?

    In a nutshell, personalised medicine will yield life-prolonging information, but having that information won’t necessarily bring peace of mind. For hypochondriacs it could be a nightmare. But there’s really no way round that. Knowing about our personal risk factors is the key to living longer. How the public handles that knowledge is another matter altogether.