This Revolutionary Medical Breakthrough Is Not a Treatment or a Cure

A doctor examines a patient to determine the cause of her illness.

(© zinkevych/Fotolia)


What is a disease? This seemingly abstract and theoretical question is actually among the most practical questions in all of biomedicine. How patients are diagnosed, treated, managed and excused from various social and moral obligations hinges on the answer that is given. So do issues of how research is done and health care paid for. The question is also becoming one of the most problematic issues that those in health care will face in the next decade.

"The revolution in our understanding of the human genome, molecular biology, and genetics is creating a huge--if little acknowledged--shift in the understanding of what a disease is."

That is because the current conception of disease is undergoing a revolutionary change, fueled by progress in genetics and molecular biology. The consequences of this shift in the definition of disease promise to be as impactful as any other advance in biomedicine has ever been, which is admittedly saying a lot for what is in essence a conceptual change rather than one based on an empirical scientific advance.

For a long time, disease was defined by patient reports of feeling sick. It was not until the twentieth century that a shift occurred away from subjective reports of clusters of symptoms to defining diseases in terms of physiological states. Doctors began to realize that not all symptoms of fever represented the presence of the same disease. Flu got distinguished from malaria. Diseases such as hypertension, osteoporosis, cancer, lipidemia, silent myocardial infarction, retinopathy, blood clots and many others were recognized as not producing any or slight symptoms until suddenly the patient had a stroke or died.

The ability to assess both biology and biochemistry and to predict the consequences of subclinical pathological processes caused a distinction to be made between illness—what a person experiences—and disease—an underlying pathological process with a predictable course. Some conditions, such as Gulf War Syndrome, PTSD, many mental illnesses and fibromyalgia, remain controversial because no underlying pathological process has been found that correlates with them—a landmark criterion for diagnosing disease throughout most of the last century.

"Diseases for which no relationship had ever been posited are being lumped together due to common biochemical causal pathways...that are amenable to the same curative intervention."

The revolution in our understanding of the human genome, molecular biology, and genetics is creating a huge--if little acknowledged--shift in the understanding of what a disease is. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular roots of pathophysiology is leading to the reclassification of many familiar diseases. The test of disease is now not the pathophysiology but the presence of a gene, set of genes or molecular pathway that causes pathophysiology. Just as fever was differentiated into a multitude of diseases in the last century, cancer, cognitive impairment, addiction and many other diseases are being broken or split into many subkinds. And other diseases for which no relationship had ever been posited are being lumped together due to common biochemical causal pathways or the presence of similar dangerous biochemical products that are amenable to the same curative intervention, no matter how disparate the patients' symptoms or organic pathologies might appear.

We used to differentiate ovarian and breast cancers. Now we are thinking of them as outcomes of the same mutations in certain genes in the BRCA regions. They may eventually lump together as BRCA disease.

Other diseases such as familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP) which causes polyneuropathy and autonomic dysfunction are being split apart into new types or kinds. The disease is the product of mutations in the transthyretin gene. It was thought to be an autosomal dominant disease with symptomatic onset between 20-40 years of age. However, as genetic testing has improved, it has become clear that FAP's traditional clinical presentation represents a relatively small portion of those with FAP. Many patients with mutations in transthyretin — even mutations commonly seen in traditional FAP patients — do not fit the common clinical presentation. As the mutations begin to be understood, some people that were previously thought to have other polyneuropathies, such as chronic inflammatory demyelinating neuropathy, are now being rediagnosed with newly discovered variants of FAP.

"We are at the start of a major conceptual shift in how we organize the world of disease, and for that matter, health promotion."

Genome-wide association studies are beginning to find many links between diseases not thought to have any connection or association. For example some forms of diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease may be the products of a small family of genetic mutations.

So why is this shift toward a genetic and molecular diagnostics likely to shake up medicine? One obvious way is that research projects may propose to recruit subjects not according to current standards of disease but on the basis of common genetic mutations or similar errors in biochemical pathways. It won't matter in a future study if subjects in a trial have what today might be termed nicotine addiction or Parkinsonism. If the molecular pathways producing the pathology are the same, then both groups might well wind up in the same trial of a drug.

In addition, what today look like common maladies—pancreatic cancer, severe depression, or acne, for example, could wind up being subdivided into so many highly differentiated versions of these conditions that each must be treated as what we now classify as a rare or ultra-rare disease. Unique biochemical markers or genetic messages may see many diseases broken into a huge number of distinct individual disease entities.

Patients may find that common genetic pathways or multiple effects from a single gene may create new alliances for fund-raising and advocacy. Groups fighting to cure mental and physical illnesses may wind up forgetting about their outward differences in the effort to alter genes or attack common protein markers.

Disease classification appears stable to us—until it isn't. And we are at the start of a major conceptual shift in how we organize the world of disease, and for that matter, health promotion. Classic reductionism, the view that all observable biological phenomena can be explained in terms of underlying chemical and physical principles, may turn out not to be true. But the molecular and genetic revolutions churning through medicine are illustrating that reductionism is going to have an enormous influence on disease classification. That is not a bad thing, but it is something that is going to take a lot to get used to.

Arthur Caplan
Dr. Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Prior to coming to NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Caplan was the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where he created the Center for Bioethics and the Department of Medical Ethics. Caplan has also taught at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Center for Biomedical Ethics, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University. He is the author or editor of thirty-five books and over 725 papers in peer reviewed journals. His most recent books are The Ethics of Sport (Oxford University Press, 2016 with Brendan Parent), and Vaccination Ethics and Policy (MIT Press, 2017 with Jason Schwartz).
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Robin Cavendish in his special wheelchair with his son Jonathan in the 1960s.

Cavendish family

In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.

Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.

Kirstie Ennis, an Afghanistan veteran who survived a helicopter crash but lost a limb, pictured in May 2021 at Two Rivers Park in Colorado.

Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram

In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.

Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.

In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.

On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.

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Melba Newsome
Melba Newsome is an independent science and health journalist whose work has appeared in Health Affairs, Scientific American, Prevention, Politico, Everyday Health and North Carolina Health News. She received the June Roth Award for Medical Journalism for a feature on genetic testing in Oprah magazine. She currently serves as core topic leader on health equity for the Association of Healthcare Journalists.