Let’s Talk: The Cold & Flu Season & Personalized Medicine

Allison Kvien, MJLST Managing Editor

As we approach cold and flu season, it is time we all start thinking about properly taking care of ourselves. Many individual factors have been linked to your heath. A Newsweek article reported that people who get less than 5 hours of sleep a night are 4.5 times as likely to become ill. According to The L.A. Times, an elevated heart rate could mean that a cold is on the way. Finally, an article from Harvard found a link between your popularity and how early in the season you become ill (yes, really—and I guess this explains why I haven’t gotten the flu since I was a kid). While this is all helpful information, it represents only a few factors that contribute to a person’s overall health. Over the years, the practice of medicine has become more accepting of the concept that “one size does not fit all” and that patients may need more personalized medicine.

One interesting development in personalized medicine was ten years ago, in 2005, when FDA approved the first race-specific drug, BiDil. As Dorothy E. Roberts explained in her MJLST article, BiDil, is “a combination drug that relaxes the blood vessels, [and] was authorized to treat heart failure in self-identified black patients.” Many scholars and citizens alike have found the approval of BiDil controversial, for a variety of reasons, legal, political, ethical, and otherwise. It may be, however, simply one more step on the path to personalization of medicine for patients. As Roberts reported, “BiDil increased survival by an astonishing 43 percent. Hospitalizations were reduced by 39 percent.” Roberts’s opinion, however, was that BiDil should have been approved for all heart failure patients, regardless of race because there was no underlying genetic difference in African Americans that the drug relied on for its positive results. The economic results of the BiDil drug may prevent others from going developing race-specific drugs for a while, though; BiDil has been described as a “flop.”

Cold season medicine is normally pretty generic. Think: Airborne, Sudafed, Advil, and cough drops, my favorite of which are the less-than-pleasant tasting Fisherman’s Friends that completely numb your throat—seriously, try them. I think the concept of personalized cold and flu medicine is particularly interesting because our current cold season medicine is normally over-the-counter and generalized. Can you imagine a future where you pick up a cold medicine tailored specifically to your genetic background? Well, it may already be happening. Just two years ago, FDA approved personalized flu vaccines for three groups: the elderly, children, and those with allergies. These personalized vaccines may allow some groups of our population to receive them when they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, or to at least receive them more safely. Specifically for flu vaccines, anyway, this step in personalization may not also reflect increased overall effectiveness in preventing illness. But let’s not give you an excuse to not get your flu vaccine. Go get that flu shot that was made just for you!