Why do some people react badly?

Pharmacologist Bob Smith of St Mary's Hospital, London, once took part in one of his own experiments for a medicine to reduce blood pressure. Unfortunately, his body could not break the medicine down properly, so he became very ill for a while. He reacted in this way because he had a particular version of a gene instruction for a protein that helps break down drugs in the body. Individuals with the same version of this gene could potentially be identified before doctors prescribe medicines for them.

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DNA analysis of a gene affecting drug metabolism. Each lane shows a different person's DNA: people require different doses depending on the gene variant they have.

Personalised medicine?

Pharmacogenomics, sometimes called personalised medicine, is the study of genetic variations that lead to people having different responses to drugs. It provides the possibility of treatment that would be specifically tailored to you, taking into account how your body would metabolise the drug and how effective the drug will be in treating your particular condition. There are already drugs to treat breast cancer and a type of leukaemia that only work for patients with a certain genetic profile.

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What is the history of pharmacogenomics?

Pharmacogenomics was borne out of three independent findings in the 1950s. First, studies of African-American soldiers who had developed anaemia after taking an antimalarial drug were found to be deficient in a particular enzyme. This inherited deficiency was later found to affect 400 million people worldwide. Second, it was found that people who received a drug to treat tuberculosis either metabolised it quickly or slowly. This rate was found to be genetically determined. Third, it was found that patients who experienced prolonged effects of the anaesthetic succinylcholine had inherited an unusual form of an enzyme.

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What is the future for pharmacogenomics?

Scientists are hopeful that further development of pharmacogenomics will result in more powerful medicines that are safer and produce fewer unpleasant side effects. It may also mean people can be screened more accurately for diseases and provide us with better vaccines.

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Principal Funder:

Wellcome trust

Major Sponsors:

GlaxoSmithKline life technologies