From Traditional to Personal

Driving the future of medicine

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What makes individuals so similar and yet so unique? What causes disease? What is happening in the body when people are healthy or sick? And why do some medicines work for a portion of the population and not for others? These are the questions that drive our research and our commitment to discovering and developing innovative treatments. And in many cases, the answers lie in our DNA. 

You can think of your DNA as a cookbook and your genes as recipes. Written in the DNA alphabet - A, T, C, and G - the recipes tell your cells how to function and what traits to express. The genome (the full set of genes or genetic material that make up an organism) contains everything needed to build and operate you, or any living thing. Your genome determines the way you look, the shape your body takes, and how your body creates the proteins that are essential to processes like digesting food or carrying oxygen in the blood. Your genome also dictates how diseases will impact your body. Whether inherited or caused by environmental factors, mutations or errors in your genetic code may cause illnesses like cancer and rare diseases such as cystic fibrosis. 

It’s been 65 years since Francis Crick and James Watson described the double helix structure of DNA and 15 years since scientists first decoded the human genome, paving the way for the field of molecular biology and personalized healthcare as we know it today. And while we know there is still a lot we don’t understand about the human body, we also celebrate just how far we’ve come in genetic science and the possibilities personalized medicine holds for the future.

At Roche, we believe personalized healthcare can transform lives by delivering care tailored to the individual. As scientists have begun to understand, target, and diagnose illnesses on a molecular level, the approach to treatment has fundamentally changed. In the past, patients who suffered from a disease such as lung cancer were treated with the same medicine. We now know that cancer is not just one disease, but the result of innumerable genetic mutations. For example, in the past, a type of lung cancer known as non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) was just diagnosed as NSCLC. Today we know over a dozen gene mutations that can play a role in this type of cancer. Looking in depth at the molecular cause of the lung cancer, we can identify biomarkers that show specific mutations or genetic expressions in the patients' tissue, which means we can develop more precise medicines that target those mutations. 

Thanks to molecular biology, our ever-evolving understanding of disease is making it possible to create targeted treatments for groups of people with the same disease drivers, and is also allowing us to better predict how well a patient is going to respond these treatments. With the help of sophisticated diagnostic tests, specific genetic defects or other malfunctions can be detected and treated.

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We believe this personalized approach is helping to prevent, diagnose and treat patients more effectively and quickly in many disease areas. The hope is that it leads to better patient outcomes and ensures efficient use of our healthcare resources. Today, 60% of our pipeline therapies come with a companion diagnostic, allowing us to identify discrete subgroups or individual patients more likely to benefit from the use of the right medicine at the right time. And we’re just starting to scratch the surface. While we have made great strides to explain what causes some diseases, such as cancer, we are still at the beginning of our journey in other disease areas. 

Yet for all its promise, personalized healthcare is not without challenges. Genomic medicine generates large amounts of data, which raises some critical questions… questions about patient privacy, data sharing, data storage, and how we - as individual patients and data owners - can work with the various stakeholders that collect our data to integrate this information into the broader healthcare systems. More precise molecular information also means that companies like ours can develop medicines for smaller patient populations, which presents a whole set of other challenges… challenges around ensuring that our clinical research is cost-effective but also generates the data needed to ensure patients have access to new treatment advances. We also need to ensure that our clinical trial data supports the development of optimal reimbursement models and meets the needs of our current health technology assessment bodies, which have historically not been designed to evaluate tailored treatments and companion diagnostics. Solutions to these challenges require partnerships with governments, hospital institutions, and other organizations as committed as we are to giving patients the best possible healthcare. 

As a company, we have been successful for over a century by constantly asking questions, following the science, and reinventing healthcare based on the latest research. For us, healthcare is not just about medicines. We specialize in both diagnostics and pharmaceuticals, looking at the whole person and the full cycle of care -- from prevention and early detection to diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring. This is a unique advantage that sets Roche apart from other companies within the industry, and one that we believe will truly make healthcare personal.

April 25, 2018