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Op Eds

Science, Research, and the Government

By Risham Dhillon

Can science research and the government be best friends? The Obama Administration sure thinks so.

On Friday, January 30th the White House released its plans for Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, a $215 million effort to propel researchers to develop new, more personal methods to treat patients.  This venture is Obama’s second major health science initiative, after announcing the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or the BRAIN initiative) in April 2013.

If realized, the Personal Medicine Initiative has the potential to be as revolutionary as was the mapping of the human genome more than a decade ago, and for this reason, such a decision should be highly applauded.

At the core of precision medicine, an ongoing area of research, is the belief that there are no one-size-fits-all treatments or medications. A treatment approach that heavily relies on the data from personalized genomics, Obama argues, would better treat patients. “The potential for precision medicine to improve care and speed the development of new treatments has only just begun to be tapped,” the White House noted. “Translating initial successes to a larger scale will require a coordinated and sustained national effort.”

The $215 million dollars are meant to be spent helping the National Institutes of Health to develop a one million volunteer research cohort for “open, responsible data sharing” that will serve as the backbone for this project, help the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of National Coordination for Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health to advance database structure, coordination, and privacy, and aid the National Cancer Institute in delving deeper into personalized genomics.

Some skeptics, like Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, have argued that the precision medicine effort is misleading–stating that it is perhaps better to spend this money “understanding what it takes to solve messy problems about how humans behave” because “we almost certainly have more control over how much we exercise, eat, drink and smoke than we do over our genomes.” And though this statement is true–we are not the masters of our genetic destinies–it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t spend our resources trying to understand our diseases through a personalized, genetic approach.

Government investment in science is a duty; societal advances depend a lot on the course of research, innovation, and technology. As Obama mentioned, the CDC’s polio eradication efforts allowed the U.S. to be polio free by 1979. Having a government that recognizes the importance of scientific and health endeavors is crucial to our future health. The memories of the 2013 budget cuts that NIH faced and the 16-day government shutdown that October which led 75% of the NIH workforce to put its work on pause demonstrates the negative consequences of governmental budget cuts to science research.  If anything, the $215 million initiative reaffirms America’s dedication to science. Furthermore, during an increasingly difficult time of cooperation between the Democrats and Republicans, having bipartisan support for something like the Personalized Medicine Initiative is highly valuable for the country.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that without looking, we don’t really know what we are missing out on. The personalized genomics approach may well end up proving to be an extremely difficult and resource consuming path to go down, but, if executed properly, it should prove to be a worthwhile investment.

Risham Dhillon ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Stoughton Hall.

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Op Eds