While NASA scientists are exploring the universe for signs of life on other planets, stars and galaxies, medical researchers here on earth are continuing to unravel the mysteries of genetics and how to better use genomic research in creating new and inventive medications to treat diseases once thought incurable.

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating, albeit somewhat technical, book titled The Gene: An Intimate History by Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Siddhartha Mukherjee. This 600-page tome can be difficult to read at times due to the extensive and explicit research necessary to write the book; but it was also fascinating to learn of the intricacies and complexities of genetic research done over nearly three centuries compared to what we know today, which is light years ahead.

My decision to read the book was the result of the constant barrage of research articles in the pharmacy and medical media addressing sophisticated and oftentimes complex testing of genes, searching for answers to the etiology of many diseases that have thus far eluded medical researchers hoping it will lead them to possible cures or control of these terrible diseases. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t read an article about how genetic testing will offer researchers a window into cancers; most notably, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia, ovarian cancer, and kidney cancer. It is believed that once the genetic pathways to these and other diseases are found, researchers will be able to develop drugs specifically targeted to the genetic makeup of a patient, so-called designer drugs.

While the advances in genetic testing will certainly pave the way to new treatments, they will also open up the proverbial “can of worms” from a moral and ethical perspective. For example, in some cases genetic testing might reveal a particular gene pattern that makes it very likely for a patient to develop a certain disease long before it presents in a doctor’s office. There is no question that difficult decisions will have to be made in how to proceed with treatments in otherwise healthy individuals. Much like sending probes and spaceships into space to explore the universe, the study of genetics is still not an exact science, with many questions still unanswered. And like space travel, if the history of the gene and centuries of research is any indication of the future, we are not far away from solving the unknown mysteries of genes and how they can better improve our health.

Unlike the Starship Enterprise that is looking for the Final Frontier, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that genetic research and the medications it produces will be the new, but not final, frontier in medicine. It’s really too early to see the impact this will have on the pharmacist’s role in this new pharmaceutical frontier, but it is an area that pharmacists should follow closely, because it is surely coming.