Korea dives into new age of 'Precision Medicine'
Tailoring healthcare to individuals by using genetic analysis and big data, Precision Medicine is a new frontier in healthcare. The South Korean government have marked it as one of its nine future growth engines for the Korean economy, and is looking to get ahead early to become a global leader in the field.
Kwon Jang-ho brings us this report.
Jeong Dong-yoon was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2012.
Over the next year, he went through two surgeries followed by chemotherapy sessions, but to no avail.
His doctors told him he didn't have too long, and he was just in his mid 50s.
"I thought I was going to die. People say if you get lung cancer you die, and that's what I thought too. I was stunned. I felt like I'd been hit by a lightning. I couldn't believe it."
But then he was given the chance to participate in the clinical trial of a newly developed drug, dubbed Afatinib, that was chosen after a study of Jeong's molecular DNA.
Three years have passed, no discomfort nor side effects have been reported, and he seems to be as fit as ever.
"His treatment was the result of what's now been named precision medicine. It's the next step up for medicine and it's exactly as it sounds; finding specific treatments for specific patients, by understanding their disease right down to the genetic level."
"In the past, there was only one treatment for lung cancer. But now we can differentiate between different types of lung cancer by looking at the genetic makeup of the patients."
The differentiation is not made by looking at a single individual, but at millions. If you take 10 cancer patients, and 3 did not respond to treatment, it's hard to find the genetic correlation between those 3 patients. But if you increase the number to a 1000 cancer patients, that would mean 300 won't respond, and therefore makes it easier to spot specific patterns of genetic mutation that makes them different.
This has only been possible in the last few years because of the dramatically falling costs of unraveling genes. In 2010, it would have cost 30-thousand U.S. dollars to sequence a person's DNA. Now it's less than a thousand.
"Medical research has come a long way, and we've come to understand how diseases work. But now we really need to look deeper. To do that, we need detailed information, from many subjects and over a long period of time, in order to reach the next level in treatment and medicine."
But every breakthrough, there are obstacles to overcome.
And in this case, it's cost.
Although sequencing genes of an individual has become more affordable, it would still cost close to a million dollars to study a thousand cases.
And then there's also the challenge of collecting even the most basic of data in the first place.
"Getting groups to share their electronic health record data, and to take that data which is in a number of different formats and not necessarily well characterized, harmonizing that data is a real challenge. We looked at our data once, for instance, we found there were seven different ways of saying height, and blood pressure that occur when you're sitting in a chair, may have 12 different ways to say it."
And cracking this problem could have huge benefits to a nation's economy and to its society.
"Previously, a lot of money was wasted on ineffective treatments. But if you give the right treatment to the right patient, then you can reduce side effects and medical expenses. This approach is also beneficial for society as a whole, as each and every recovered patient gets to continue contributing to the economy of the country."
That's why the Korean government identifies precision medicine as one of the country's nine future growth engines, which also includes AI and driverless cars.
But the fruits of this industry go beyond national borders.
If Korea can collect a minimum cohort of 100-thousand people's data, the country will also be allowed into a U.S.-led global network, which gives members access to other country's shared data.
In other words, Korea will be part of an elite worldwide club, leading the way in the future of medicine.
"This is clearly the biggest project in biology or medicine… Potentially it's the biggest project in the world, especially when you think about all the other countries that are involved in Precision Medicine initiatives.
[33:05] It's been talked about in terms of the mobilization and the focus of things like the human genome project as one, and then things like sending someone to the moon."