Future of healthcare in Singapore: Predicting diseases

SINGAPORE - The future of health care may lie in predicting diseases before they even happen, then tailoring the treatment according to a patient's genetic make-up.

This concept of personalised medicine - using DNA or other information specific to an individual to tailor treatment - is already being practised to some extent at some medical institutions here.

At the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) there are several initiatives to enhance personalised cardiac care, said its research and development unit director Philip Wong.

One example is the use of a certain type of stem cell to produce beating heart cells for drug screening. Researchers can test drugs on these cells to see how the patient would eventually respond to them.

Associate Professor Wong explained that sometimes the usual treatments may not work on some patients.

Improvements in personalised cardiac care will not only help detect these "non-responders", he said. It can also help predict the possibility of certain life-threatening conditions, and be used to test new forms of treatments in these patients.

At the Joint Conference of the Human Genome Meeting 2013 and 21st International Congress of Genetics on Tuesday, Stanford University's Professor and Chair of Genetics Michael Snyder also shared the potential of personalised medicine through a study in which he predicted type 2 diabetes in himself.

In the study, he analysed his own blood and sequenced his genome for an in-depth understanding of his body. Genome sequencing costs about US$3,000 (S$3,700).

The research, published in March last year, showed that he had an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, even though he did not know of anyone in his family who had the chronic condition. He was eventually diagnosed with the disease.

Being able to catch it early allowed him to change his diet and lifestyle and start managing the diabetes sooner. "I think that is going to be the name of the game for medicine in future - to shift from catching disease after people get it, to try and predict and prevent disease," added Prof Snyder on the sidelines of the event at Marina Bay Sands.

"And I think that will be much more effective."

Human Genome Organisation president Edison Liu said the talent and capabilities needed to develop personalised medicine is already available locally. "The only question is, really, the cost-effectiveness of this approach."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.