Vital Signs: The Future Is (Sort Of) Now

Welcome to Kendra Marr's new blog-in-a-blog on the Washington area's biotech and health care scene. We're calling it Vital Signs.

By Kendra Marr

Perhaps it was the purple starry night backdrop or the strange silver poles lined up on stage, but G. Steven Burrill seemed to have arrived from the future. Addressing AdvaMed 2008, a medical technology industry conference being held in Washington this week, he spoke about the upcoming era of personalized medicine.

Soon all health care will be Wal-Mart-ized, said Burrill, chief executive of Burrill & Co., a San Francisco life sciences merchant bank.

When you walk into a superstore, you'll drop a sample of blood or saliva on a Blackberry-type device. And when you're done shopping for groceries, the store will present you with a printout of your ailments and a bag of personalized medication. That medication will also contain digestible computer chips, which will monitor and relay real-time reports on your body's fluctuations.

Imagine, said Burrill, wearing smart clothing, filled with probes and sensors that will monitor our health.

"And I'm not in lala land because I've been on too many airplanes," he said. "It's going to happen sooner than later. We already have most of this technology."

Glimpses already are available: Two years ago Nike partnered with Apple to put sensors in sneakers, which track your run, then send that data to your iPod.

It's not long before we start embedding microchips filled with genetic information into newborns, Burrill said. So, one day, if they have a heart attack in Dubai, any doctor can easily access their entire medical history.

"Today if I have a heart attack in Dubai, I'm in deep yogurt," he joked.

To the crowd, Burrill's ideas were hardly far fetched. After all, this was coming from the man who is considered one of the original architects of biotechnology. His annual report is considered the leading authority on industry trends.

But Burrill isn't the first to dream up this health care utopia. Personalized medicine has long been a popular buzz word among politicians, doctors and scientists predicting the future of medicine.

In announcing his Bio 2020 Initiative, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) invoked the potential power of personalized medicine. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, has repeatedly pushed the agency to encourage personalized diagnosis and treatment.

He talks about his ideas in this video.

And the X-Prize Foundation, a educational nonprofit, is offering a $10 million prize to whoever can develop technology that cuts the cost and time to sequence the genome.

At AdvaMed 2008, I also caught up with Glen T. Giovannetti, head of Ernst & Young's global biotechnology practice, which also publishes an annual industry report. He offered his analysis of how this new frontier might be achieved.

The science behind personalized medicine is advancing rapidly. Cancer patients are already using targeted drugs, such as Herceptin. Companies such as Vanda Pharmaceuticals of Rockville are applying genetics to tailor drug discovery, clinical trials, and marketing compounds to the right patients.

Soon personalized medicine will reinvent business models, Ernst & Young predicts. Today drug companies profit by selling large volumes of low-priced products. In the future, high-priced personalized medicine will be sold in low volumes.

But this also means altering the current benchmarks evaluating cost benefits. Today society is being asked whether we are willing to pay $50,000 to extend a cancer patients life three more months -- a heart wrenching decision for doctors and loved ones, said Giovannetti. Personalized medicine will be expensive, but society will also need to assess its total impact. For example, targeted drugs could lower costs in other parts of the health-care system by eliminating ineffective therapies.

And legislation logistics guiding personalized medicine still need to be sorted out. How will we reimburse diagnostic tests? How fast will it take for doctors and hospitals to make use of medical records that includes genetic information? Who will build the necessary IT infrastructure to handle the massive amounts of data?

By Dan Beyers  |  September 26, 2008; 2:35 PM ET  | Category:  Vital Signs
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