An original perspective of personalized health

The SantéPerSo initiative has launched an international journalism competition with the theme of personalized health.

Personalized health, also known as precision medicine, results from the convergence of different phenomena: the acceleration of genome sequencing, the development of Big Data about health, and the improvement of analytical algorithms. These technological advances allow better understanding of the risks of developing a pathology, more precise diagnoses and tailor-made treatments. It is more than an evolution: personalized health represents a real paradigm shift. Such disruption raises many questions, but also raises hopes and fears about the future of medicine.

Participants were invited to propose an original journalistic treatment of an aspect of personalized health, in French or English. 

The winning projects

1st PRIZE: Law Yao-Hua with the project "Precision Medicine, Personalized for Each Country"

In Southeast Asia, Singapore and Thailand are leading the region as they have started national initiatives to integrate PM into primary healthcare. Both countries have government-funded centers of excellence that conduct advanced genome sequencing and pharmacogenomics testing, and drive promotion of PM into public healthcare.

The promise of “the right medicine for the right person at the right time” is truly hard to dismissed. Applying PM, scientists, doctors and biostatisticians cooperate to give you the best drug treatment possible; all they need is a reading of your genome. Which politician, scientist or doctor would reject such a marvelous and encouraging idea? 

Yet like many great ideas, the promises of PM has sprinted past reality and snowballed into hype. Building the infrastructure for PM is prohibitively expensive for most countries, and the returns on investment is far from guaranteed. Precision medicine has achieved considerable success, but mainly in cancers and some rare diseases. It has yet to benefit public healthcare on a scale that justifies the huge investment of funds and talents.

I will write a story and produce a radio documentary that investigate:

  1. Why hasn’t precision medicine benefited public healthcare?
  2. What is necessary to make precision medicine part of public healthcare? The research setup, the database systems, the laws and policies (insurance, data protection), and education of clinicians and patients.
  3. What are policy-makers juggling in making national decisions on investing in precision medicine?

2nd PRIZE: Claudia Alemañy Castilla with the project "Cuba: a fertile scenario where personalized medicine still does not expand its potential"

Just a year ago, Dr. Robert Williamson, professor at the Murdoch Institute for Child Research at the University of Melbourne in Australia, visited the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. On that occasion, the expert reflected on the ethical applications of personalized medicine and on the ethical implications related to it. Williamson warned that storing and safeguarding the genetic information of millions of people is a difficult task that not only requires the commitment of scientists, but also of governments. 

From Dr. Williamson's lecture I began to make some inquiries about the evolution of personalized medicine in Cuba. For three years I specialized in health, science and technology issues and despite that I had no idea how medical institutions in my country were approaching this new health model. 

Since the 1990s, the country has rapidly expanded studies related to biotechnology and medical genetics. On the other hand, the first study of personalized medicine in the country dates from 2007, where the influence of the skin color of Cubans in the appearance of age-related degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's was evaluated. 

Despite the early history and that the country has research centers that already flirt with large-scale genetic studies; Cuba still has many debts to settle on personalized medicine. 

Given this reality, I wish to carry out a journalistic investigation that evaluated the causes that limit the expansion of personalized medicine in Cuba. 

3rd PRIZE: Jessica Ahedor with the project "Fate of tailored-made medicine amidst African cultural patrimony"

Africa bears a significant ratio of the global burden of chronic diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2010) predicts in the next ten years to come the continent will experience the largest increase in death rates from cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes. The Regions chronic disease burden is attributed to multifaceted factors including increased life expectancy, changing lifestyle practices, poverty, urbanization and globalization. Rising morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases co-exist with an even greater burden of infectious disease, which still accounts for at least 69% of deaths on the continent. Many African health systems are under-funded and under-resourced and struggle to cope with the cumulative burden of infectious and chronic diseases. An estimated 80% of regional health budgets has been allocated to communicable disease for the last decade. As such even though personalized medicine may be more than evolution and appears to have some hopes, fears of this tailored-made medicine for the African continent will have to battle what is known as the concept and practice integration and cost aside other known factors that the Europe system is fronted with. 

According to WHO, 80 per cent of the world depends on herbal medicine for their primary health care needs. The passage and practice of herbal medicine is not necessarily formal but rather embedded in the cultural patrimony of most Africans. In a pluralistic medical setting such as Africa with its attendant challenge of full integration of orthodox medicine, the concept of personalized medicine I will be presenting another twist to these dynamics.