Launch event: exploring personalised medicine by Stefano Gortana

PUBLISHED: 22/03/2016

The launch event for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Personalised Medicine was held on Wednesday 15 March 2016 in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House. When the presentations began, the room was packed with over 100 professionals representing diverse industries, universities, think tanks and policy institutions, clinical bodies and government parties. 

Group Chair Jo Churchill MP was in New York for a meeting on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, but sent a video message welcoming members and attendees and explaining her hopes for the Group, saying: “I believe this Group will provide a much-needed forum, for productive discussion and insightful debate, on how personalised medicine offers us opportunities to provide a more efficient and effective NHS”.

Co-Chair the Rt Hon. the Lord Warner led a panel of distinguished speakers, comprising Parliamentary Under Secretary for Life Sciences George Freeman MP, Head Clinician at Cancer Research UK Professor Peter Johnson and Head of the Department of Medicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital Oxford, Professor Hugh Watkins. 

The quiet revolution behind personalised medicine

In order to establish the conceptual foundation of this Group from the outset, the launch focused on exploring what ‘personalised medicine’ really means for patients and the NHS more broadly. As Mr Freeman observed, this Group has emerged at ‘a time when personalised medicine demands more rigorous debate and attention’. He observed that a ‘quiet revolution’ driven by bioscience and technology, including genomics and informatics at scale, has begun to break down the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to medicine. 

The minister also highlighted the interrelated and mutually reinforcing role of innovative technology, disease leadership in the policy agenda and the patient’s voice in the pursuit of patient-tailored medicine and more efficient care pathways and clinical reforms. Combined with growing patient demand for greater control over health and care, and an NHS desperate for efficiency savings, personalised medicine has never been more important to the future of healthcare in the UK.

The need for clinical pull to match innovation push

Professor Peter Johnson focused on the evolution of personalised medicine in cancer, stressing the crucial role of molecular and atomic analysis in improved cancer diagnosis and treatment, which has resulted in better outcomes for patients and efficiency savings. He argued for the need to ensure that the ‘push’ of life sciences and research innovation has an equal and matching ‘pull’ from the NHS to the implementation phase  – “there is a good deal of push and not an enormous amount of pull taking place, and that’s where I think this Group can play a really big part”. Professor Johnson concluded by reiterating the priorities highlighted in the National Cancer Task Force report: the need for a funding stream for molecular diagnostics in cancer; the collection of data for optimisation of implementation process; and the validation of panel tests to facilitate the use of genomics.

Treading carefully towards transformation

Professor Hugh Watkins concluded the presentations for the day and began by noting that the crucial tool that has allowed us to provide personalised medicine is genetics, which has transformed aspects of clinical care and patient experience in cardiology over the last ten years. He cited the new potential to identify inherited mutations associated with serious heart disease in families where a sudden death had occurred, to prevent further premature deaths. Despite some personal concerns about hype and over-expectation in some areas of medicine, Professor Watkins emphasised the fundamental importance of technology to provide personalised medicine. However, he concluded by stressing the need to be careful to map the scientific, technological approach to the type of disease, as certain tools are more or less effective in different medical contexts.

Common concerns

Many common conclusions were reached from both the clinical and the parliamentary perspectives provided. All the speakers agreed that innovative science and technology are the keys to more personalised and more effective medicine. Furthermore, they argued that more needs to be done to push and pull such innovations towards widespread implementation. The speakers also wanted to see the health system, in the words of Mr Freeman: “turned from something that is essentially done to us, to something that patients get to drive for themselves and for their disease”.

There were also shared concerns. It was widely agreed that a more efficient, effective and integrated health system relied upon access to and appropriate sharing of patient data. The Life Sciences Minister noted that he seemed to spend half his time responding to complaints from industry regarding the slow rate of clinical implementation and the other half responding to the same complaints from patients! 

The APPG on Personalised Medicine will undoubtedly be examining questions around both the imperative for data sharing in the NHS to support personalised medicine, and other issues that could act as drivers and barriers to the uptake of useful technologies and science, in the months ahead.