No longer the stuff of science fiction, genetic medicine may soon touch Indian shores. As reported in Mint on Saturday, scientists have found genes among various communities in the country that render them susceptible to specific diseases. These genes also open up the possibility of designer medical treatment, so far unheard of in the country.
The study identified 75 genes in 55 communities in the country involved in diseases ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disorders, among other medical conditions. It looked at variations in these genes among different communities.
The importance of the study, carried out by the Indian Genome Variation Consortium, a collection of scientists from various labs in the country, lies in creating a broad genetic map of disease markers in the Indian population. For example, it was found that certain groups of people in north-western India were less susceptible to HIV/AIDS. Similarly, the effectiveness of the asthma drug, Salbutamol, could be seen varying in different communities.
This is crucial data that is required before actual community-specific drug design, clinical testing, etc., can even be thought of. There are significant economic externalities involved in this process. If such information is made available to drug companies, it saves them significant costs which otherwise would have made the process of drug discovery and design very expensive, if not impossible.
Such attempts are likely to draw criticism as being another instance of elitist medicine and pampering the private sector. What is not realized is that given India’s huge population, economies of scale are very real, making such drugs possible. In any case, if a community/individuals with specific disease markers respond better to engineered drugs, it can’t be dubbed elitist: it’s scientific. The long-run costs of poor medical treatment are likely to come down with the availability of such therapies.
Pills in a bottle targeted at specific communities are, however, still some distance away, for there are many scientific, clinical and ethical issues that still need to be resolved. Better medical advice, based on genetic susceptibility to diseases, will, however, be possible in the near future.
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