Conference Coverage

Precision medicine in rheumatology: Enormous opportunity exists



Advances in precision medicine present enormous opportunity for rheumatology, but optimizing its benefits requires more input from the specialty and a sharper focus on related training for rheumatologists, according to Judith A. James, MD, PhD.

Dr. Judith James, professor of medicine and associate vice provost of clinical and translational science at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City

Dr. Judith James

Precision medicine is getting a great deal of attention and is an exciting area, but it is already widely used in the field; think treat-to-target in rheumatoid arthritis, autoantibody testing for patient stratification across various conditions, and individual monitoring and dose escalation to achieve optimal uric acid levels in gout patients, Dr. James, professor of medicine and associate vice provost of clinical and translational science at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, said at the Winter Rheumatology Symposium sponsored by the American College of Rheumatology.

“We have historically ... actually had the highest number of FDA approved biomarker tests in rheumatology compared to all other specialties until this last couple of years where we’re starting to see this explosion of genetic testing in oncology – and we’ve been doing genetic testing,” she said.

However, there is a great deal more work to be done.

“We still have a long way to go to go to get the right drug at the right dose at the right time in the right patient in order to optimize outcomes in all of these diseases that we are responsible for as rheumatologists,” she said.

The fields of oncology and hematology have been intensely focused on precision medicine – the development of unique therapies based on specific genetic abnormalities in an individual’s tumor – and this focus is apparent in practice patterns: A recent survey of 132 medical oncologists and hematologists/oncologists showed that nearly 90% had ordered DNA sequencing, about 65% do so monthly, and 25% do so weekly.

“Those numbers are just going to continue to climb, and I think will see this in other disciplines as well,” she said.

The possibilities for improved outcomes in rheumatologic conditions using tailored treatments based on individual characteristics are practically limitless, she said, noting the heterogeneity of many rheumatologic conditions.

This is particularly true for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patients, she said.

Identifying patient subsets based on organ involvement, demographics, and biomarkers, for example, could lead to personalized treatments with different doses, routes of administration, and concurrent medications, she explained.

Genetics in SLE

Dr. James highlighted the role of genetics and the value of precision medicine in the SLE setting in a large transancestral association study published in 2017. The investigators analyzed Immunochip genotype data from 27,574 SLE cases and controls and identified 58 distinct non–human leukocyte antigen (HLA) regions in Americans with European ancestry, 9 in those with African ancestry, and 16 in those with Hispanic ancestry. The investigators found that these non-HLA regions included 24 novel to SLE, and in their analysis the researchers were able to refine association signals in previously established regions, extend associations to additional ancestries, and reveal a complex multigenic effect just outside of the HLA region (Nature Commun. 2017;8:16021).