Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Health advances-not so fast

A section of New York Magazine, June 16th 2008, begins with the words, ‘medicine advances at astonishing speeds’. It’s a profound statement but is it accurate? Of course it depends on what you mean by astonishing speed, but I think medicine progresses quite slowly considering the rate at which we accumulate new insights into disease and it’s potential treatments. We hypothesis and test at an alarming rate, but it can take an interminably long time for a new medicine to reach the pharmacy, or for a medical paradigm to shift. Take the Human Genome Project for example. This was a 13-year old project coordinated by the National Institutes of Health and the US dept of energy. Multiple countries participated as did the Wellcome Trust, a premier UK research foundation. Much was made of the effort which identified most of the 12-25,000 genes estimated to make up the human genome, and determined the sequence of the 3 billion chemical base bases that make up human DNA. (ref: www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml). As it neared completion, widespread anticipation grew among the general public about the slew of medicines that would surely follow the last gene identified. We are now 5 years on and there is little to show for it in terms of medical breakthroughs. The NIH itself admits that the analyses of the data will continue for many years. The most obvious outcome to date is the availability of a relatively cheap way to get a genetic profile for those that are brave enough. Even this though, is not a definitive depiction of the future for those that take the test. Genes are rarely deterministic, depending on environmental conditions to trigger and support their directives to vulnerable cells and systems. Some companies that administer the tests also supply the putative nutritional safeguards that go along with each potential risk, playing on the fears of the patient and pocketing the rewards as a result. Not that genetic testing is bad; rather that it needs to be kept in perspective. Knowing your genetic risk can be a good thing if the risk is well characterized and there are things you can do to off-set the disease. For most genetic risks, that is not the case. Human physiology in health and disease is fascinating and complicated and inherently unique. Understanding the interactions of genes with each other and the environment in which they operate requires lengthy research and analysis. We should learn to set our expectations. Accumulation of observations is indeed fabulously fast. But translation to, and acceptance of, real benefit will always be, by comparison, painstakingly slow.
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