Background Paper

Pharmacogenomics: A Primer for Policymakers
January 28, 2008


Leslie Tucker, Consultant


Researchers are exploring how genetic variations among individuals may help explain why a drug can work well in some people and poorly (or not at all) in others, including those who appear to have the same disease. Pharmacogenomics, as this new field is called, aims to help physicians make use of genetic tests to distinguish among patients whose genetic characteristics predispose them to respond in certain ways to certain medicines. If physicians can use this information to quickly and reliably choose the appropriate drug at the most effective dose for each patient, they may produce better patient outcomes and save health care dollars. An understanding of the genetic variables that influence drug response could also help pharmaceutical companies design new, more effective therapies. Although it is early in the development of pharmacogenomics, there are indications that this promising new technology has begun to challenge public policies to keep pace. Issues surrounding the safety, access, cost, and ethical dimensions of new clinical genetic tests and targeted drug therapies will need to be addressed if pharmacogenomics is to fulfill its potential. Conceptually, few of the issues raised by pharmacogenomics are unique to the field—or even to genetics—but all will have to be considered explicitly in the context of this new technology.

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