Our Own Cells Might Hold the Key to Curing Diseases

Friday, 13 November 2015 - 11:04AM
Medical Tech
Friday, 13 November 2015 - 11:04AM
Our own bodies might hold the key to the evolution of medical treatment. Physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has recently proposed a new paradigm for medical treatment that uses different types of human cells to cure disease. Instead of working from the "top down," by using medications that kill the disease and return the body to the status quo, he proposes that we work from the "bottom up," and use our own cells to rewire or even rebuild the body.

According to Mukherjee's recent TED Talk, the age of the antibiotic could be coming to an end as the old model of "Have Disease, Take Pill, Kill Something" finds a challenger in Mukherjee's new model based on the natural world hierarchy, "Cells, Organ/Organism, Environments." Antibiotics led to a huge advancement in medical treatment, but when the old model is applied to chronic diseases there has only been partial success, perhaps due to the fact that only 0.025% of all chemical reactions in your body can be targeted by the standard model of sending something into your body to kill the problem. 

Mukherjee suggests that medical treatment is in need of a perceptual shift, a reframing of how we think about medicine, stating, "Rather than killing something, in the case of the great chronic degenerative diseases – kidney failure, diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis – maybe what we really need to do is change the metaphor to growing something." Instead of looking for a newer, stronger pill, Mukherjee says that we should be looking for solutions starting at the cellular level.

And his model of "Cells, Organ/Organism, Environments" has already been put to use with successful results. Recently, one-year-old Layla Richards' leukemia was cured using a new gene-editing technique. When the leukemia returned after traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy, doctors at the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London tried an experimental therapy, giving Layla a small infusion of modified white blood cells from a healthy donor. It was the first time the treatment had been used, and Layla now seems to be cancer-free.

Mukherjee himself suffered from cartilage degeneration, and when he failed to respond to injections and other common treatments, he hypothesized that the degeneration of the stem cell that builds the skeletal system was the cause. He and his team isolated the stem cells, and in lab scenarios these cartilage-building cells were the most efficient repairers of fractures in test rats, possibly indicating a new course of treatment for diseases such as osteoarthritis in the future.

This model could potentially work for mental illness as well. Mukherjee described how medication for illnesses such as depression takes a "top-down" approach by treating the physical etiology, which works, but only to a point. Researchers have found that it is much more effective to combine medication with tactics such as "Talk Therapy" and "Immersion Therapies," which change the physiology of the brain and effectively "rewire" it, which gets to the heart of the problem much more than medication alone. 

In the case of Layla Richards, Waseem Qasim, a professor of cell and gene therapy at GOSH, reminds us that the successful results of the treatment must be replicated before assumptions can be made on the future of cancer treatment. However, Mukherjee points to the model and its successes as being representative of something greater: "When a scientist is building a model, he or she is trying to show you the world in metaphor. He or she is trying to create a new way of seeing." 

The successes stated above may only be isolated and circumstantial at the moment. But they represent a shift to the new model and a new way to think about the future of medicine. And this perceptual shift could lead to the development of new treatments as influential and successful as the introduction of antibiotics nearly one hundred years ago. 
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