The End of Illness

That's the title of a provocative new book by Dr. David Agus and the topic of an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday, called The Doctor in Your Pocket. In the not too distant future, Agus believes, his children - and everyone else - will be able to:

....monitor and adjust their health in real time with the help of smartphones, wearable gadgets--perhaps like small, invisible stickers--to track the inner workings of their cells, and virtual replicas of their bodies that they will play much like videogames, allowing them to know exactly what they can do to optimize every aspect of their health. What happens when I take drug x at dosage y? How can I change the expression of my genes to stop cancer? Would eating more salmon and dark chocolate boost my metabolism and burn fat? Can red wine really lower my risk of heart attack?

From a drop of their blood, they'll be able to upload information onto a personal biochip that can help to create an individualized plan of action, including both preventive measures and therapies for identified ailments or signs of "unhealthiness." (Other body fluids--like tears and saliva--might be routinely tested, too.) They would be on the lookout for problems like imbalances in blood-sugar control, a risk factor for diabetes, and uncontrolled cell growth, which could signal cancer. Their doctors won't just examine them once a year; they will continually monitor the next generation of patients, offering advice along the way.

What is equally exciting is that this patient data will be added to a universal database that can be aggregated by powerful search engines like Google and constantly fed into new trials and experiments--speeding up our understanding of which drugs work best for which people. The database might show, for example, that people with a particular genetic profile respond to one type of cancer treatment but not another. As more people anonymously add their health data, this database would become more and more effective as a tool for preventive medicine.

Dr. Agus could've just as easily called the book, The End of Health. Today, we only think we're sick when the flu or the cold virus sends us staggering back to our bed, or the cancer becomes a lump we can touch or see on an X-ray.

In reality, your body is a constantly shifting molecular battleground, with life and death battles being waged every minute by myriad protective genes and the immune system to neutralize invading infections induce pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide, and keep a healthy balance between thousands of other protein-protein interactions.

Typically, tumors start from a single cell a decade before the fatal cancer is unleashed. The first insidious tendrils of Alzheimer's in the brain may launch decades before the dementia becomes detectable. And the diseases that will kill or cripple us are almost uniquely personal to our genetics, diet, and environment, requiring an equally personalized approach to treating the complex diseases that afflict modern humanity. (My colleague Peter Huber has written eloquently on the challenges and opportunities of personalized medicine in a seminal City Journal article, Cherry Garcia and the End of Socialized Medicine.)

So fighting the battle against disease, and the ravages of aging that often cause disease, is happening in your body now, and the drug that the FDA approves to fight the disease after it is half way to killing you is often too late to do much good -and at enormous financial cost.

If we want to really conquer diseases like cancer, as opposed to just slow it down at the margins, we need to mine the information on those myriad interactions in your body in something approaching real time. It'll be tremendously challenging, but as Argus points out all of basic technology - smartphones, supercomputers, whole genome scans, etc., are all available today and getting cheaper all of the time.

What we really need now, is a vanguard of people - hundreds or thousands - to put the technology to the test, and then let the supercomputers loose to crunch the data and uncover the associations that will help drive new prevention efforts to attack these diseases at their molecular roots when they're still just chemicals as opposed to solid tumors or ravaged neurons.

Thankfully, capitalism is very good at scanning things, crunching numbers, and delivering personalized recommendations (a la Amazon) simultaneously to millions of people.

To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds from Instapundit, "(much) faster please."

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