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Pharmacogenetics is the exploration of the relationship between inherited genes and the ability of the body to metabolize drugs. Although research interests are rapidly expanding, by early 2003 pharmacogenetics research concentrated on trying establish connections between the genes carried by an individual (genotype) and specific reactions to drugs (e.g., side effects, toxicities, etc.).

Modern medicine relies on the use of therapeutic drugs to treat disease, but one of the longstanding problems has been the documented variation in patient response to drug therapy. The recommended dosage is usually established at a level shown to be effective in 50% of a test population, and based on the patient's initial response, the dosage may be increased, decreased, or discontinued. In rare situations, the patient may experience an adverse reaction to the drug and be shown to have a pharmacogenetic disorder. The unique feature of this group of diseases is that the problem does not occur until after the drug is given, so a person may have a pharmacogenetic defect and never know it if the specific drug required to trigger the reaction is never administered.

For example, consider the case of a 35-year-old male who is scheduled for surgical repair of a hernia. The patient is otherwise in excellent health and has no family history of any serious medical problems. After entering the operating theater, an inhalation anesthetic and/or muscle relaxant is administered to render the patient unconscious. Unexpectedly, there is a significant increase in body temperature, and the patient experiences sustained muscle contraction. If this condition is not reversed promptly, it can lead to death. Anesthesiologists are now familiar with this type of reaction. It occurs only rarely, but it uniquely identifies the patient as having malignant hyperthermia, a rare genetic disorder that affects the body's ability to respond normally to anesthetics. Once diagnosed with malignant hyperthermia, it is quite easy to avoid future episodes by simply using a different type of anesthetic when surgery is necessary, but it often takes one negative, and potentially life threatening, experience to know the condition exists.

An incident that occurred in the 1950s further shows the diversity of pharmacogenetic disorders. During the Korean War, service personnel were deployed in a region of the world where they were at increased risk for malaria. To reduce the likelihood of acquiring that disease, the antimalarial drug primaquine was administered. Shortly thereafter, approximately 10% of the African-American servicemen were diagnosed with acute anemia and a smaller percentage of soldiers of Mediterranean ancestry showed a more severe hemolytic anemia. Investigation revealed that the affected individuals had a mutation in the glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) gene. Functional G6PD is important in the maintenance of a balance between oxidized and reduced molecules in the cells, and, under normal circumstances, a mutation that eliminates the normal enzyme function can be compensated for by other cellular processes. However, mutation carriers are compromised when their cells are stressed, such as when the primaquine is administered. The system becomes overloaded, and the result is oxidative damage of the red blood cells and anemia. Clearly, both the medics who administered the primaquine and the men who took the drug were unaware of the potential consequences. Fortunately, once the drug treatment was discontinued, the individuals recovered.

Drugs are essential to modern medical practice, but, as in the cases of malignant hyperthermia and G6PD deficiency, it has become clear that not all individuals respond equally to each drug. Reactions can vary from positive improvement in the quality of life to life threatening episodes. Annually, in the United States, there are over two million reported cases of adverse drug reactions and a further 100,000 deaths per year because of drug treatments. The Human Genome Project and other research endeavors provided, and continue to provide, information that is allowing a better understanding of the underlying causes of pharmacogenetic anomalies with the hope that eventually the number of negative episodes can be reduced.

In particular, research on one enzyme family is beginning to revolutionize the concepts of drug therapy. The cytochrome P450 system is a group of related enzymes that are key components in the metabolic conversion of over 50% of all currently used drugs. Studies involving one member of this family, CYP2D6, have revealed the presence of several polymorphic genetic variations (poor, intermediate, extensive, and ultra) that result in different clinical phenotypes with respect to drug metabolism. For example, a poor metabolizer has difficulty in converting the therapeutic drug into a useable form, so the unmodified chemical will accumulate in the body and may cause a toxic overdose. To prevent this from happening, the prescribed dosage of the drug must be reduced. An ultra metabolizer, on the other hand, shows exceedingly rapid breakdown of the drug to the point that the substance may be destroyed so quickly that therapeutic levels may not be reached, and the patient may therefore never show any benefit from treatment. In these cases, switching to another type of drug that is not associated with CYP2D6 metabolism may prove more beneficial. The third phenotypic class, the extensive metabolizers, is less extreme than the ultra metabolism category, but nevertheless presents a relatively rapid turnover of drug that may require a higher than normal dosage to maintain a proper level within the cells. And, finally, the intermediate phenotype falls between the poor and extensive categories and gives reasonable metabolism and turnover of the drug. This is the group for whom most recommended drug dosages appear to be appropriate. However, the elucidation of the four different metabolic classes has clearly shown that the usual "one size fits all" recommended drug dose is not appropriate for all individuals. In the future, it will become increasingly necessary to know the patient's metabolic phenotype with respect to the drug being given to determine the most appropriate regimen of therapy for that individual.

At the present time, pharmacogenetics is still in its infancy with its full potential yet to be realized. Based on current studies, it is possible to envision many different applications in the future. In addition to providing patient specific drug therapies, pharmacogenetics will aid in the clinician's ability to predict adverse reactions before they occur and identify the potential for drug addiction or overdose. New tests will be developed to monitor the effects of drugs, and new medications will be found that will specifically target a particular genetic defect. Increased knowledge in this field should provide a better understanding of the metabolic effects of food additives, work related chemicals, and industrial byproducts. In time, these advances will improve the practice of medicine and become the standard of care.



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Chakravarti, A. "To a Future of Genetic Medicine" Nature 409 (2001): 822–823.

Stein, C.M.; Chim C. Lang; Hong-Guang Xie; et. al. "Hypertension in Black People: Study of Specific Genotypes and Phenotypes Will Provide a Greater Understanding of Interindividual and Interethnic Variability in Blood Pressure Regulation than Studies Based On Race." Pharmacogenetics 11 (2001): 95-110

Connie Stein

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