The future of medicine? Cells not pills

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a visionary cancer doctor and the writer of an awesome book about cancer published few years ago.

In the TED talk below, he takes us through a fantastic journey about the future of medicine and how it could change soon.

Medicine started with simple principles, such as have disease, take pill and kill something. It worked and is still functioning as of today for specific diseases. However, the future is elsewhere.

The natural world gives us some clues about how one might think about illness. In fact, the natural world is organized hierarchically upwards, not downwards. It begins with a cell that give rise to self-regulating, semi-autonomous units called organs, and these organs coalesce to form humans, and these organisms ultimately live in environments.

Siddhartha Mukherjee takes the example of cancer. To tackle this disease, we started to kill cells with chemotherapeutic agents and targeted therapies, then we realized that it would be a nice idea to harvest the immune system in the war against cancer. This gave birth to immuno-oncology drugs bringing extraordinary outcomes to patients. The next step is to change the environment but it is much more challenging…

Stem cells are also part of the solution according to Siddhartha Mukherjee. However, it raises tons of questions… as what’s at stake is not killing something, but growing something. This means that we need to think upside-down and shift our views as well as our traditional thinking.

  • Could your medicine be a cell and not a pill?
  • How would we grow these cells?
  • What we would we do to stop the malignant growth of these cells? Could we implant suicide genes into these cells to stop them from growing?
  • Could your medicine be an organ that’s created outside the body and then implanted into the body? Could that stop some of the degeneration? What if the organ needed to have memory?
  • Could your medicine be an environment? In every culture, shamans have been using environments as medicines. Could we imagine that for our future?

It is very often said that the reason we haven’t had the transformative impact on the treatment of illness is because we don’t have powerful-enough drugs, and that’s partly true. But perhaps the real reason is that we don’t have powerful-enough ways of thinking about medicines.

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