Personalizing personalized medicine

Recently, a new anti-cancer drug was approved by the FDA. It marks a big moment in the movement toward personalized medicine because it's the first time a drug targeting specific biomarkers has been approved. 

This got me thinking about the phrase "personalized medicine." 

Person-alized medicine is about the person. How much do we really know about the person in today's medical treatment system?

Answer #1 - We know a lot. From head to toe, we've studied just about everything there is to study in the human body. And while we're always learning more, we pretty much have the right framework for a complete understanding of the human body.

Answer #2 - We know a lot, and we still have a long way to go. A human being is much more than a human body

I prefer the second answer. It appreciates just how much we know, and also appreciates just how much we don't know. The bulk of what we don't know about the human being is because we're using an outdated paradigm to understand it.

Today's paradigm is based on Cartesian dualism. Cartesian refers to the philosopher Rene Descartes, and dualism refers to his idea that the mind and body are separate. Surely, he wasn't the first to have this idea, but his name stands out in history. The medical treatment system adopted his idea a long time ago, and because of that, the mind has largely been cleaved from the body. That's why terms like "mind-body medicine" and "the placebo effect" are of such interest to the medical community. They represent a different, sometimes uncomfortable way of understanding the human being.

Other philosophies, such as idealism and non-dualism, take a different perspective from Cartesian dualism. They suggest that the human being, along with the rest of the world, is of mental character, mind-stuff so-to-speak. What's the benefit of seeing it this way? If this is correct, then diagnosis and treatment is no longer restricted to physical-only therapies, such as pills and procedures. The mind also can be harnessed to heal.

That doesn't mean we just sit down, meditate, and everything is going to change. What it means is that by developing self-awareness, we can see ourselves, our bodies, and the world around us more completely. That more complete vision yields new possibilities.

I'm a fan of personalized medicine. The more specific we can get with our treatments, the better. Let's also endeavor to understand the person better.


Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. He is the creator of Meditation Starter Kit and a course on The Three Bodies. He is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area.