©Shutterstock/Chepko Danil Vitalevich
Thanks to recent breakthroughs in genetics research, doctors can treat some diseases in amazing new ways. For example, for years, the best way to treat cancer has been to attack the cancer cells in every patient with the same medicines, but this approach only works on some people.
Now, for some forms of cancer, doctors can test a patient’s individual genetic makeup to determine which medicine will work better. This personalized approach can make treatment much more effective.
What if we could use personalized medicine (which researchers call “precision medicine”) to treat drug problems—or to prevent them from happening in the first place?
The idea isn’t as wild as you might think. Drug counselors already use a person’s individual experiences to help them with counseling. What about also looking at their personal biology—their genetic makeup?
Genes and treatment
Researchers have already found that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on that person’s genes. The next logical step is to see if a person’s genetic information could be used to reduce this risk.
For instance, some treatments for nicotine addiction can be tailored to an individual smoker’s genetic makeup, increasing the odds that they’ll successfully quit smoking. Soon, doctors may also be able to do this for someone who’s addicted to opioids, and then give the person the exact amount of methadone that treats their addiction, without giving them too much.
In one study, researchers identified the genetic makeup of young adults who were less likely than others in their age group to become addicted to nicotine. The study found that if some of these young adults started smoking, they did it later than the others. This suggests that one day, identifying a person’s genetic “map” might reveal ways to prevent that person from developing an addiction.
Your genes don’t completely control if you’ll develop a problem with drugs; your experiences and environment also play a part. But as scientists unlock more of the clues in our genes, we may enter a new era of treating and preventing drug problems.