The New Healers: The Promise and Problems of Molecular Medicine in the Twenty-First Century

The New Healers: The Promise and Problems of Molecular Medicine in the Twenty-First Century

The New Healers: The Promise and Problems of Molecular Medicine in the Twenty-First Century

The New Healers: The Promise and Problems of Molecular Medicine in the Twenty-First Century

Synopsis

Human beings have on the order of 100,000 different genes encoding the molecules needed to build and operate the human body; defects in any one of them can lead to disastrous consequences. There are an estimated 4,000 genetic disorders, which can be every bit as devastating as the diseases caused by bacteria or viruses, and in one way they are much worse: we pass them on to our children, generation after generation after generation. The New Healers is the story of the devastation these diseases cause, and the scientific researchers and doctors who struggle to combat them. Science and medicine have provided us with clues to the treatment of a few genetic diseases, although by their very nature they have never been considered curable. But, as William R. Clark shows, that is about to change through one of the most profound revolutions in modern medicine: gene therapy, a branch of the new field of molecular medicine. Clark takes us to the laboratories which have been able to isolate human genes, to make billions of copies of them, and to reintroduce healthy genes into unfortunate individuals who have inherited damaged or functionless genes. He also shows us how this same technology, turned around on itself, can also be used to deliberately introduce "bad" genes to attack and destroy unwanted cells, such as cancer cells or cells infected with the AIDS virus. Molecular medicine will be a major part of our lives in the new millennium. The New Healers outlines the powerful and compelling logic behind molecular medicine: everything we know about molecular biology tells us that it can work, and that it will work. Clark introduces us to the scientists working now to map out the entire human genome, easily the medical equivalent of going to the moon, taking human beings to a completely new level of understanding of our biological selves. Clark also helps us to begin thinking about how we will manage that understanding, and how we will use the information we gain. The New Healers is a clear and compelling introduction to this important new frontier of human medicine, outlining for readers all the basic elements of molecular biology necessary to understand molecular medicine, and illustrating the fascinating stories of those doctors and patients already a part of this exciting future -- a future as full of promise as anything we have witnessed in this past century of remarkable progress.

Excerpt

We watched him on television as he played inside his plastic bubble. We and the rest of the world marvelled that a tiny toddler who had never felt his mother's skin, or smelled her body, or tasted hot food could grow into a bright-eyed, mischievous, highly intelligent and seemingly well-adjusted youth. And then he died. And we mourned, and we asked why.

Young David -- the "Bubble-boy," as he came to be known -- had SCID: severe combined immune-deficiency disease. SCID is one of an estimated 4,000 human diseases caused by a defective gene, a tiny snippet of one of the forty-six long strands of DNA stored in each of our cells. Children born with SCID have a defect in their immune systems; they are born the immunological equivalent of an AIDS patient entering the final stage of disease, and have about the same life expectancy. They usually die of the same causes -- mortal infection by microbial pathogens.

Infectious diseases were once the scourge of the human race, felling the majority of people before they even reached reproductive age. That changed with improved public health programs in major population centers, immunization with crippled forms of microbial pathogens that induce immune protection without causing disease, and finally with the discovery of antibiotics. Before the AIDS epidemic, it was rare (although certainly not unknown) for someone to die of an infectious disease in industrialized countries.

But when all of the diseases caused directly by microbial pathogens are accounted for, human beings still find themselves assaulted by a wide range of crippling, even lethal maladies. These are diseases that are idiopathic, arising within us because of some defect in the myriad molecules . . .

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