The future of precision medicine in Australia

31 January 2018
Louis with Minister for Health, Greg Hunt
A report released today by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) sets the scene for a future where precision medicine transforms Australia’s healthcare system.

Precision medicine combines knowledge of a person’s unique genetic makeup, protein levels, and their environment to allow accurate disease prevention and treatment tailored to individual needs.

To date, the main focus has been in well-supported clinical areas, such as cancer, and ‘rare’ single-gene disorders which are a cause of intellectual and physical disability in children.

However, The future of precision medicine in Australia report says that opportunities to improve health outcomes for complex disorders, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are equally exciting.

“With careful planning, advances in precision medicine and the technologies that support it will offer great value for the health of all Australians. Precision medicine is the personalised medicine of the future,” said the Chair of the ACOLA expert working group, Professor Bob Williamson.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who commissioned the report on behalf of the Commonwealth Science Council, said it was a roadmap to a better health system for the nation.

“The essence of this report is optimisation: the optimisation of public policy for individual care. It provides the intellectual framework for a healthcare revolution that will shape the lives and choices of all Australians,” Dr Finkel said.

Integration into clinical practice, evaluation of cost-effectiveness and data sharing will be very important to progressing precision medicine within Australia and internationally. Professor Kathryn North, lead of the Australian Genomics Health Alliance, Director of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and a co- author for the report, believes it is the future of medicine in Australia.

The report sets out how precision medicine will build on the strong tradition of medical research in fields such as immunology, genetics, vaccine development, bionics and imaging in Australia. It explains where precision medicine is likely to go over the next five to ten years. The report notes that the technologies that underpin precision medicine are also of great value to other fields such as agriculture and the environmental sciences, where there is a high level of skill and commitment in Australia.

However, the report warns that precision medicine could lead to genetic discrimination, or continue inequality of access to healthcare. Ensuring benefits to everyone in Australia will require ethical thought, ongoing public engagement and planned implementation.

The forward-looking report has nine key findings, and is the second in the horizon scanning series. It was funded by the Federal Department of Health.

“By working in close partnership with the Chief Scientist and government departments, and bringing together some of Australia’s best minds, from many disciplines, ACOLA is able to provide evidence on priority issues for Australia to inform policy and guide opportunities,” said ACOLA President, Professor Glenn Withers.

The launch was attended by four-year old Louis and his parents, Amy and Martin. Louis and his family have already benefited from precision medicine. He was diagnosed with a severe degenerative condition, ‘Leigh’s Disease’, at just five months old. However, following a comprehensive genomic analysis of his DNA, doctors were able to identify the gene which had produced Louis’ illness and develop a simple and effective treatment regime that halted progression of the disease. Professor North led a compelling Q&A session with the family, who have seen the benefits of precision medicine first hand.

The project report The Future of Precision Medicine in Australia, launched by the Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP at Eureka 89 in Melbourne on 31 January 2018, is available here.

Professor Robert Williamson AO FRS FAA FAHMS 

Professor Bob Williamson became Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry and Pre-Clinical Dean at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, University of London, in 1976, where he remained until 1995, when he moved to Melbourne as Director of the Murdoch Institute and Professor of Medical Genetics. He retired in October 2004 and is now an Honorary Senior Principal Fellow of the Murdoch Institute, the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

Professor Kathryn North AM FAHMS

Professor Kathryn North is Director of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the David Danks Professor of Child Health Research at the University of Melbourne. She is trained as a physician, neurologist and clinical geneticist and, in 1994, was awarded a doctorate for research in neurogenetics. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Harvard Genetics Program. 

For more information: 

Read the Full report, Report extract, and Input papers.
Listen to Bob Williamson’s interview with ABC News.
Read an excerpt from an article by Bob Williamson. 

Media Coverage
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 January 2018.