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How cross-linked will the “medicine of the future” be?



Photo: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Each of us has a unique biology that powerfully influences our health. We inherit a unique mix of genes from our parents, adding on a few new mutations and other types of changes. Particular versions of these genes increase the risk that we will develop a particular disease; other versions make it less likely. Our daily lives bring us in touch with billions of viruses, bacteria, and other parasites that take up residence in our bodies and create an individual “microbiome”. This changing community of microorganisms likewise protects us from some diseases and makes us susceptible to others. Scientists are developing new methods to detect these connections, which usually requires comparing tissues from large groups of healthy people and patients suffering from a particular disease. New methods will be needed to understand the complex interactions that take place between organisms in the microbiome and their impact on health and disease. At some point, it will be possible to make some good predictions about individuals’ risk of developing particular diseases; this can be combined with information about lifestyle factors to design a prevention strategy for each of us, and to pick the best therapy when we get sick. Doing so will require an analysis of our genes and capturing information about our diets and habits. Such strategies will require a great deal of cooperation from the public, who will need to decide whether they want to make information public that has previously been considered private. These “recipes” will never be perfect or complete, but they can help us lead longer, healthier lives.

Alongside this greater understanding of the factors that contribute to disease, great advances are being made in the biology of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. It is now possible to obtain the complete genetic sequence of one of these organisms within hours or a day, which will make the development of vaccines or other types of therapies much quicker. Expanding the types of biochemical experiments, cell cultures, and animal models that we use will greatly increase the speed of developing new drugs or other forms of therapies. Eventually new genetic tools will allow us to replace defective molecules in specific types of cells and restore their functions. Stem cell and immune therapies will allow us to make use of our individual cells to regenerate damaged tissues and reverse some of the degenerative processes that lead to aging. Thus, the medicine of the future will combine classical clinical diagnostics and treatment with tools from molecular and cell biology.
Russ Hodge, science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, answered this question.