Genetics pioneer Craig Venter has revealed that personalised, genome-based health care could help prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths caused each year by adverse drug reactions. A new era of affordable gene sequencing will also render obsolete the practice of testing drugs on various ethnic groups, he said in a commentary, published by the London-based Nature Publishing Group.
Currently, clinical trials for medications often compare results across different racial groups.
One new compound, BiDil, is specifically designed for African Americans with heart disease.
Venter and three scientists from the Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland vigorously defend the focus on minorities in drug studies, but argue that race-based medicine should be seen only as an imperfect stop-gap measure.
"Practitioners can now go beyond therapy on the basis of ethnicity into the precisely targeted arena of personal genomics," they write.
The high degree of genetic diversity within single ethnic groups, they point out, shows that assumptions about shared traits are deeply flawed.
In 2000, a team led by Venter and a publicly-funded rival effort simultaneously unveiled the world's first two completely sequenced human genomes.
Three of the genes were identical, but the other three showed variations that could result in sharply different reactions between the two men to several common drugs.
Venter, for example, had a variant of the CYP2D6 gene that helps metabolise certain medications prescribed for depression, psychosis and arrhythmia, an irregular beating of the heart.
In Watson, however, the same gene was different enough such that none of these drugs would be likely to function as intended.
Anti-cancer medication as well as drugs to prevent blood clots and hypertension would also have different effects on the two men due to differences in two other genes, the study found.
Sometimes having the wrong version of a gene can help made a medicine toxic, contributing to a syndrome called adverse drug reaction (ADR).
In the United States alone, there are more than two million cases of ADR ever year, about 100,000 of them fatal.