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Medicine’s next step

A breast cancer patient received a trial medication treatment in San Francisco in 2005.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/file

Health care is always personal. As science and technology have advanced, it’s become possible to make it personalized as well, giving us the tools to better understand, prevent, and treat everyone’s individual health needs.

We wouldn’t buy a pair of glasses that doesn’t match our eyesight, and though plenty of people break their arms, everyone gets fitted for their own cast. Our health care should be customized for us. The powerful and exciting field of precision medicine goes a step further and asks: What if we could just as easily match a cancer cure to a patient’s unique genetic code? Instead of trying a one-size-fits-all treatment, what if medical experts could tailor one specifically for everyone’s body?

By bringing together doctors and data like never before, precision medicine aims to deliver the right treatments in the right dosage at the right time — every time. It helps target the causes of a condition rather than just the symptoms. This is one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever seen for new medical breakthroughs, but it only works if we collect enough information first.


On Thursday we’re announcing a big step toward making that happen. The National Institutes of Health is making major investments in partnerships across the country, including with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, to gather data that could lead to lifesaving discoveries. Building in strong privacy and security protections from the start, NIH is teaming up with regional health care providers and community-based health clinics to sign up a million or more volunteers from all walks of life. The health, environmental, and lifestyle information this diverse group will provide will be analyzed by qualified scientists to generate new insights and one day bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is also partnering with NIH to enroll veterans in the study, which will help us learn more about health questions critical to those who have served our country. And the Food and Drug Administration is proposing a new way to approve innovative genetic tests so we can expand our knowledge base and accelerate advances in this important technology.


Such a large sample of health data will help us better understand why certain treatments work for some people but not others, or why seemingly fit people fall ill. The ensuing breakthroughs could help people live longer, happier, and healthier lives; create new jobs and industries in the United States; and, by improving care, will ultimately make our entire health system work better. And because precision medicine empowers people to monitor and take a more active role in maintaining their health, it can preempt the hurt and heartbreak many of us have endured when we’ve seen our loved ones suffer.

We’ve already seen precision medicine work. Its breakthrough therapies have helped children with leukemia, adults with breast cancer, and patients with heart disorders and cystic fibrosis. With entrepreneurs and scientists leading the way and collaborating with experts in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, an individualized approach can help us learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder.

One of my administration’s proudest accomplishments has been expanding access to affordable health care to 20 million Americans. Now we’re working to ensure more people will also have access to the information that makes their health care more effective. It won’t happen overnight, but we’re standing once again at the doorstep of discovery.

Precision medicine gives us the chance to marry what’s unique about America — our spirit of innovation, our courage to take risks, our collaborative instincts – with what’s unique about Americans – every individual’s distinctive genetic makeup, lifestyles, and health needs. In doing so, we can keep ourselves, our families, and our nation healthier for generations to come.


Barack Obama is the president of the United States.