Preventive medicine: how we treat disease before it happens

Corona shows: Health can only be maintained if we stay one step ahead of suffering. Artificial intelligence, data medicine and modern biology help with it.

A young woman wears a so-called surgical mask and looks to the side

ÄDoctors mostly fight symptoms and diseases instead of preventing them. But for successful Prevention complex ailments are still far too poorly understood. Help should now Systems biology, trying to measure and describe life as comprehensively as possible. Their holistic approach will make medicine more humane, give us a head start on disease, and give us a life in health.

Wear mask? Are you vaccinated? Keep your distance?

The corona pandemic has fundamentally changed us and our lives. The idea of prevention has become commonplace. Incessantly we do something or let something else be, with the aim of not getting sick and protecting the health of others. We try to stay ahead of infection.

We trust in the findings of science. This is because it was able to measure that FFP2 masks keep out corona viruses and aerosols are dispelled by ventilation. She has even managed to develop a safe and effective vaccine in an amazingly short time. And it could use models to predict how the pandemic is likely to develop if policymakers adopt certain contact restriction measures- or not.

In this way, we are acting in a completely different way than we usually do. If we are healthy, we avoid doctors. We care little about this condition, which is not the opposite of illness, but a process of adaptation to life. Diseases are part of life. Our health should therefore also allow us to cope well with chronic suffering or aging. And that is why a real health medicine should always be one step ahead of suffering, infection, neglect, pandemic, loneliness. It should know what is threatening.

The maintenance of health

However, today’s medicine is first and foremost responsible for the therapy of diseases and the treatment of symptoms, not for the preservation of health. It is only logical that our health care system- which, strictly speaking, is a disease system ÄIt pays doctors and hospitals especially when they are supposed to heal us. Prevention is much less of a priority. Yet it is considered a dream of mankind to prevent diseases before they occur.

Nothing drives science more than making life and the environment predictable. Astronomy succeeded already in the 16. In the twentieth century, it was able to measure the orbits of the planets so accurately and predict them using differential equations that it was able to look into the future. From then on, mankind knew when Jupiter, Venus or Saturn would appear at which point in the sky. The system of the celestial bodies was figured out with the help of physics and mathematics. Algorithms made the changes of the planets over time describable.

A wonderful idea, succeeded the same with the biology, with the system of the life. It would be the end of medicine as we know it today. Because doctors could act with foresight, together with many other professions, such as psychologists, midwives, physiotherapists, nutrition and exercise advisors, to ensure that we live a healthy life.

Recognize imbalance and stabilize your own system

If an imbalance arose in the system of life, then a small, precise intervention, adapted only to that person in his particular socio-cultural environment and with his very personal experiences, could take place. It could be a particular drug, psychological coaching, or a change in diet, sleep, or exercise program. Already the biological system of this person would be strengthened, and the disease would be averted before it could develop at all.

Online lecture about systems biology, the medicine of the future and a life in health.

Of course this is a utopia. We are still a long way from it. The life of a human being is incomparably more complex than the orbits of the planets. There are probably so many interrelated links, external and internal networks and hidden patterns, that it will always be impossible to describe life in its entirety. Moreover, the vast majority of diseases are much more complicated than infections, such as covid-19.

When it comes to common diseases of civilization, ailments and symptoms such as high blood pressure, allergies, depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer or simply back pain, science generally knows neither their deep-seated causal mechanisms nor the connections between their development in the network of life.

A task of the century

But basic biological research is about to unravel the molecular structures of biology- the genes, epigenetic switches, proteins, messenger substances- together with their function meticulously to clarify. It’s a task for the century. For at the same time, it is beginning to better understand the networks that link a person’s cells, organs, hormones, nervous systems, and even the bacteria that inhabit the intestine. And together with psychology, but also the social and cultural sciences and ecology, it is finding out where the interfaces lie between the network of our biology and the networks of our environment.

This new way of thinking is already being implemented in Louisville, Kentucky, for example: There, health data from test subjects has been analyzed and streets have been closed to truck traffic or parks have been created in order to improve air quality at neuralgic points. The number of asthma attacks dropped to a quarter afterwards.

In another study, researchers used artificial intelligence to evaluate the blood glucose response of 800 people to nearly 50.000 meals and snacks from. Finally, they developed an amazingly well-functioning algorithm for personal nutritional counseling.

Measuring life

The goal: to make the life of an individual as comprehensive as possible- but also how necessary and then to make them predictable with the help of mathematics and modern computer technology. Then, with the help of digital twins or virtual avatars, one could create an image of such a person. And with this one could look a little bit into the future.

As a kind of health navigator, this digital twin could help us navigate through life according to our very own rules and still achieve consciously set goals. This is not new. Even today, the navigation system in our cars reliably shows us the way according to predefined instructions. Only the goals would be different. About staying physically and mentally fit into old age. Or simply, to enjoy life and still get through safely.

The science behind such ideas is systems biology. It is "the measuring and calculating of life at and around a given moment", says Nikolaus Rajewsky, head of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology. Currently, his collaborators are exploring how individual cells regulate their genes in an individual way, they are growing artificial mini-organs. And they use self-training algorithms- a technology from the world of artificial intelligence- to uncover the hidden mechanisms of life.

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A human, talking, holistic medicine

Ultimately, systems biology attempts to understand life holistically on a scientific basis. A medicine based on it would be more human, more speaking and more diverse than today’s medicine. Actually, it would no longer be medicine at all, but a kind of health accompaniment.

ÄDoctors would have time again to listen to us and to talk to us at eye level. They would also be part of a team that helps us to live with unavoidable suffering and to treat preventable diseases before they arise. Something similar is already being done today by the Corona Expert Council. Experts from many disciplines work together there to protect the health of us all.

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An important component of such health monitoring could one day be a smartphone app or something similar. From this we would learn what consequences our actions in the here and now have for tomorrow against the background of an individual biography and biology. What happens to me when I train for a marathon, take this particular medication, or decide to eat only fast food?? What impact will this have on my health a year or even a decade from now?

Clearly, this idea seems dystopian to us. But the trend can hardly be stopped. And if we set the right rules today- to confront us with the problems and dangers- thanks to systems biology, we gain a life in that individual form of health that we personally define as our ideal adaptation to life.

Self-determined handling of data

In return, we should no longer be as naive as we are today to give away our data to corporations like Google or Apple in return for convenience. It will be crucial that we as individuals retain our freedom and independence. No state or employer or any other institution should be able to dictate what we mean by health. We must insist on self-determination in the use of our data. Each person must be able to determine, without pressure, who has access to their health data and for what purpose that data is used. A new profession of data consultants will help us to achieve this.

And no one is allowed to interfere with the definition of health, i.e. the direction in which the health navigator controlled by the digital twin is supposed to lead us. We must be free to decide how we want to live our lives- which future is important to us personally. Because health is not the opposite of illness.

Health is the individual way to grow old as contentedly as possible.

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