4 Ways the Human Genome Project Changed Medicine

What we have learned, and what we are learning


Researchers are devoted to figuring out what makes you and me tick — and then making us tick better. Based on that idea, the Human Genome Project was a massive milestone.

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Results of this international project were announced in April 2003. Researchers set out to identify the 20,000–25,000 genes in our DNA and then give us better tools for understanding the data, among other things. Now, 10 years later, what they learned — and what they continue to learn — has changed medicine for the better. Here are four ways how.

“For several types of cancer and other conditions, doctors can predict your risk. Then they can help you do something about it.”

Kathryn Teng

Kathryn Teng, MD

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Center for Personalized Healthcare

1. Tailored treatments with fewer side effects

Forget treatment by trial-and-error. In some cases, doctors can tailor your medications and doses by who you are, not just by what population you belong to. This is thanks to pharmacogenetics, which deals with how your genes affect your response to drugs. Pharmacogenetics can save you from harmful side effects and make your treatment faster and more effective. The field is still in its early stages with much to learn.

2. More focus on personalized care

The Human Genome Project covered all of our genes. But that big-picture approach has paved the way for individual portraits of your health. For several types of cancer and other conditions, doctors can predict your risk. Then they can help you do something about it. Genetics is one of many tools for personalized care, along with family history and others.

3. Better studies, better science

The Human Genome Project showed how much good a large-scale, multi-center approach can do. Many studies today build on that model, including President Barack Obama’s brain-mapping initiative, announced in early April 2013. It’s about strength in numbers: More scientists working together can ask more questions and get more answers by studying more patients. 

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4. Data for smarter decisions

The researchers in the Human Genome Project wanted to make data easier for doctors to use. It was part of a push for better electronic medical records — to put more information at your doctors’ fingertips and help them make smarter decisions. The next step is to get all of these records to “talk” to each other and become more universal.

In 10 more years, who knows where we’ll be?

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