Want a prescription? 'X-ray' your genes first

Researchers in Israel are using a deep sequencer to look at how the genetic expressions of microRNAs will affect any given patient's reaction to medications.

Charles Williams/Flickr

You know that stern voice at the end of drug advertisements that runs through the list of possible side effects as quickly (and sometimes comically) as possible? "Possible side effects include nausea, anxiety, an erection that lasts more than four hours, and in rare cases, death."

This wide range of possibilities exists in large part because drugs and dosages have yet to be personalized, and while there are established standard reactions to those drugs and dosages, our bodies are ultimately genetically unique.

Enter the emerging realm of personalized medicine, a method that uses information about an individual to tailor prescriptions to that individual. And a lab at Tel Aviv University is making a name for itself as researchers investigate how to use a deep sequencer--which reads the human genome and its expression--to develop a map of gene regulator pathways in individuals.

MicroRNAs (regulatory genetic snippets that bind to and silence certain genes and can affect, for instance, how we metabolize drugs) play a key role here. They weren't even characterized until the early '90s, but already several microRNAs have been linked to various cancers, sometimes slowing down the spread and sometimes speeding it up.

"One day, people will be able to have their whole genome sequenced and their gene and microRNA expression mapped, and this will become a part of their medical file," says Noam Shomron at the university's Sackler Faculty of Medicine. "They will be able to bring this information with them from doctor to doctor, much like an X-ray."

In their recent experiments, the team in Tel Aviv looked at how microRNAs can affect a common blood-thinning medication to treat heart disease. It's just a start, but eventually the idea is to not only understand how a drug will affect a specific person based on genetic makeup, but even based on what other drugs that person is also taking.

Someday, drug commercials may be required to be a bit more specific. I can hear the tagline already: "If your microRNAs inhibit the E2F1 protein, possible side effects may include..."

About the author

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.

 

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