Monday, April 23, 2007

The Fight Between Man and Disease

In the minds of medical researchers, physicians, and physician trainees (that is, medical students), this fight or race between man and disease is at the forefront. In the clinical setting, it is no surprise then that there are many battle or war metaphors. The fight against ________ [insert disease]. If you watch movies about immunology, you can see that it is literally a battle between our cells and the cells or molecules of disease-causing agents.

The inspiration for this post came, unsurprisingly, from reading texts on the immune cells—the body’s bodyguards and soldiers against micro-invaders. A seemingly simple question suddenly occurred to me, which was: who is winning this battle? Then another question followed that, saying, “Can the battle be won?” As I mulled it over, my conclusion is that this battle, on average, is always going to be a tied battle. In other words, disease will win some, then we grow smarter and win some. When we average this out, I am speculating that we’ll get a tied game. To be blunter, man and disease will always co-exist. The diseases may change, but present they will be. For many of us, this is an extremely troubling idea, but it is a fact—unless maybe if we live in a bubble or in heaven.

This obvious “revelation” need not be entirely discouraging. It can also be a comforting idea in that it lets us know that no matter how hard a disease seems to be banging on us, no matter how unbeatable it may seem, eventually we’ll catch up, figure out its weakness, and eradicate—or at least get it to submit to our drugs. This is the natural order of things it seems, if history is any indication.

As Peter Parham in his book “The immune system, second edition” mentions, in developing countries that suffer high rates of parasitic infections, there are much fewer allergic and asthma conditions compared to people in developed countries where there are relatively little parasitic infections. The remarkable thing is that the same antibody (part of the body’s army) that helps to protect a person from a third world country from parasites also helps to cause allergies and asthma in the person from a developed country. The immune soldier, a particular one called IgE, is serving its purpose in developing countries: to help fight parasites. In the developed world, however, where there are relatively fewer parasites to fight, IgE becomes bored, frustrated, and irritable. So, it tags as an invader anything that looks the least bit foreign and harmful—including your precious pooky’s cat dander. As this IgE illustrates, when our life is purposeless, we start to behave in all kinds of self-destructive ways.

Anyway, back to my point. The fight between man and disease is an on-going one. This truth is part of what keeps medical researchers in business and fulfilling their lives’ interests and purposes. The take home message is that we will not be defeated (in the long-term) by these diseases, no matter how powerful they seem now. The battle between man and disease, however, is not about who will win; rather, it is about how we become or remain one step ahead of the various diseases (new or old) that love to live next door to us or even in our homes.

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