Obama puts personalized medicine in the spotlight with a primetime pitch

Speaking before a global audience of millions, President Barack Obama threw his support behind the potential of personalized medicine, skimping on details but hinting at a federally funded R&D effort in keeping with the $4.5 billion BRAIN Initiative.

During Tuesday's State of the Union address, Obama talked up the need for--and economic benefit of--investing in R&D, highlighting the particular promise of targeted therapies crafted for patients with specific genetic variations.

"I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine -- one that delivers the right treatment at the right time. In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable," he said, as a man treated with Vertex Pharmaceuticals' ($VRTX) gene-tailored CF drug Kalydeco sat next to first lady Michelle Obama.

"Tonight, I'm launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes -- and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier."

Just what that will entail remains unclear, at least until Obama presents his fiscal 2016 budget on Feb. 2, likely providing details on the scope and cost of the new effort.

For clues, however, one might look to 2013's BRAIN Initiative, through which the National Institutes of Health plans to dole out $4.5 billion in grants over 10 years with hopes of broadly advancing the field of neuroscience. Applying that model to genomic-minded therapeutic development, the Precision Medicine Initiative could focus on projects designed to better find druggable targets amid the deluge of data now available via inexpensive next-generation sequencing. NIH may also take a cue from the U.K.'s National Health Service, which last year announced a plot to sequence the genomes of 100,000 Britons by 2017 in an effort to better understand human disease.

Personalized therapies are hardly new, of course, and Kalydeco is among the many such drugs already on the market, particularly in oncology. But Obama's co-sign, however vague, puts the field in a spotlight not often granted to life sciences researchers and could galvanize a wealth of public interest in what has been a long-brewing aspect of biopharma R&D. -- Damian Garde (email | Twitter)