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What is “personalised medicine”?



Personalised medicine means giving patients exactly the treatment – and only the treatment – they need.

Doctors have known for a long time that treatment needs to be tailored to each individual because diseases can progress very differently in different people. In many cases, we now have a better understanding of why that is so: the same symptoms can have very different causes in different patients, and if the underlying cause is known, treatment can be tailored accordingly.

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Photo: Gerd Altmann /

Here’s an example: If two women with breast cancer receive the same treatment, one might show improvement and the other none at all. The success of a particular therapy depends on many factors that have to do with both the patient and the tumour – for example, the tumour’s genetic makeup and exact location, and the patient’s liver metabolism. The aim of personalised medicine is to determine in advance – by means of biochemical tests or the tumour’s genetic signature, for example – whether a given patient will be able to tolerate a certain treatment and whether or not that treatment is likely to be successful.

In the case of breast cancer, at least, personalised medicine is already well on its way to becoming reality. A certain structure – a receptor for a growth factor – is present in abundance on the surface of some types of breast cancer cells, and this drives their growth. Now, targeted treatment can intervene to prevent that. A biochemical test can determine whether the cancer cells in a given patient show an abundance of this receptor so they can receive that treatment – which would have no effect in those patients whose cells do not.

Saskia Blank from the Ideas 2020-Team answered this question in collaboration with the department “Press and Public Relations” of the German Cancer Research Center.