The Most Critical Factor in Medicine? Human Bias


Oncologist and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee suggests that what doctors fight against isn’t so much disease — it’s their own biases.

In the summer of 2003, I finished my three-year residency in internal medicine and began a fellowship in oncology. It was an exhilarating time. The Human Genome Project had laid the foundation for the new science of genomics, the study of the entire genome. And it was nothing short of a windfall for cancer biology.

Cancer is a genetic disease, an illness caused by mutations in genes. Until the early 2000s, most scientists had examined cancer cells one gene at a time. But once we could examine thousands of genes in parallel, the true complexity of cancers became evident. The human genome has about twenty-four thousand genes in total. In some cancers, up to a hundred and twenty genes were altered — one in every two hundred genes — while in others, only two or three genes were mutated. (Why do some cancers carry such complexity, while others are genetically simpler? Even the questions were unexpected — much less the answers.)

The capacity to examine thousands of genes in parallel, without making any presuppositions about the mutant genes, allowed researchers to find novel, previously unknown genetic associations with cancer. Some of the newly discovered mutations in cancer were truly unexpected: it turned out the genes did not control growth directly, but affected the metabolism of nutrients or chemical modifications of DNA. If cancer cells were dependent on mutant genes for their survival or growth — “addicted” to the mutations, as biologists liked to describe it — then targeting these addictions with specific molecules might force cancer cells to die. The battle-ax chemical poisons of cellular growth would become obsolete at last.


The most spectacular example of a new drug, Gleevec, for a variant of leukemia, had galvanized the entire field. I still recall the first patient whom I treated with Gleevec, a 56-year-old man whose bone marrow had been so eaten by leukemia that he had virtually no platelets left. He would bleed profusely from every biopsy that we performed; an oncology fellow had to meet Mr. K in the exam room with a brick-size pack of sterile gauze pads, and press on his biopsy site for half an hour to prevent bleeding. Read the rest of the article on TED

Siddhartha Mukherjee: Soon we’ll cure diseases with a cell, not a pill

Current medical treatment boils down to six words: Have disease, take pill, kill something. But physician Siddhartha Mukherjee points to a future of medicine that will transform the way we heal.


About LFCT

This is a blog about CHILDHOOD CANCER and CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS Little Fighters Cancer Trust is a non-profit organisation that offers support and aid to Children with Cancer and their families. When a child is diagnosed with cancer it affects the whole family. One of the parents, usually the mother, must give up their job to care for the child and this creates financial problems for the family. In South Africa especially the majority of these families are not well-to-do; many of them are rural. A diagnosis of cancer can wipe out any family’s finances, let alone a poor family. The costs of special medications, special diets, hospital stays, transport to and from the hospital or clinic and accommodation and food costs for the mother who spends most of the time at her child’s bedside are astronomical. These are the people and problems that fall through the cracks, and these are the people that Little Fighters Cancer Trust has pledged to help in any way possible. LFCT takes a holistic approach to assisting the Children with Cancer and their Families, with the main aim to be the preservation of individual dignity and pride. Little Fighters Cancer Trust also focuses on promotion and advocacy of National Childhood Cancer Awareness in an effort to increase awareness of Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer. This would result in earlier diagnosis, giving the Child with Cancer more of a chance at Treatment and Survival. See "About" for more Background info

Posted on 4 November, 2015, in Blog, Videos and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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