Throughout history, medical treatments have been tailored to particular diseases. But what happens when you encounter a disease so complex and varied that it’s extremely difficult to tell which treatments will work?

As genetic science has become more commonplace, a new field of medicine has emerged: personalized medicine. By collecting genetic data, a handful of companies have been able to accurately predict which therapies will be most effective for individual patients.

A targeted approach

“Right now medicine is ‘one-size-fits-all,’” said Neil Campbell, President and CEO of Helomics, a personalized health care company. “Because of that, some people benefit from it and others don’t. Personalized medicine allows you to tailor a drug to a particular patient.”

“Within the realm of bad luck getting ovarian cancer, the genetic mutation part was actually a stroke of good luck. It put me in control.”

Katya Lezin, 49, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 45. She found out through genetic testing that she has a mutation on her BRCA1 gene, predisposing her to certain cancers. After her hysterectomy, she also had a prophylactic double mastectomy to address what she learned was an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.

“Within the realm of bad luck getting ovarian cancer, the genetic mutation part was actually a stroke of good luck,” she said. “It put me in control.”

Almost two years after diagnosis and treatment, the cancer recurred in her spleen. When she had her splenectomy, her surgeons sent a sample of the tumor to Helomics, who tested the tumor for responsiveness to certain drugs. While she did not end up needing chemotherapy this time around, she did learn that the tumor would not have responded to a particular drug that likely would have been used without the test.

“These chemo drugs are big, bad and ugly,” she said. “Why have one that’s getting pumped into you and doing all kinds of destruction if, in fact, they’re not destroying the cancer cells?”

Limitless potential

Personalized medicine has tremendous potential for cancer therapy, said Dr. Scott Richard, division chief of gynecologic oncology at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia.

“By looking at the characteristics of the individual tumor and designing a treatment that fits the best way into the cancer diagnosis, we can eliminate chemotherapy that won’t work,” he said. “If, for example, you have a choice between four different agents, you can hone in on the one that seems like it will have the best results.”

“The potential for impact is huge,” said Mr. Campbell. “It’s within our reach in the near term to have large amounts of the world’s population benefit from it.”