Understanding the mind of a disease


The Emperor of All Maladies, a book by Siddhartha Mukerjee M.D. a physician oncologist is subtitled a “biography of cancer”. Its an historical overview of the disease What caught my eye was the title of the book review of Dr. M’s book: “The Mind of a Disease.”  (NYT Sunday Book Review 11.14.10).When I read the title, I said to myself “aha, a book by a physician trying to understand the actual mind–the internal being of a disease, a metaphorical way of knowing the disease in order to understand it well enough to  manage or cure it. Dr. M’s book is not  that, but the author of the book review, a professor of medical journalism, does refer to this theme–the idea of trying to understand the way a disease thinks and interacts with human biological systems beyond the mere language of biochemistry or the lexicon of cell structure. It is much more. It is pattern and path recognition like the close study of a pitcher in baseball for the way he grips the laces of the baseball in his fingers and the flow and movement on release of the curve. It is more than just a tool for studying disease process. This way of seeing has alsobeen referred to within the field of data mining predictive modeling  in the study of the human genome. We are  beginning to decipher the workings and language of disease at the most basic levels and the early communications of chemicals as the disease begins the errant processes which have a logic and rationality as sure and straight as the logic of mathematics itself but in the form of cell growth and overgrowth as part of a normal process within us. Not the enemy, it is us untamed.

Obviously, the more we know about the normal bodily systems and cell functions, the more we can learn about abnormal processes and this systemic approach is now being individualized to the patient. I am not really speak about that.  I assume all of that. The core change is how do researchers  approach to understanding the mechanisms of Alzheimers disease. Assuming this is a process that is part of our cell functions but a form of mismanagement rather than an enemy to be conquered.

This week, there was an article in news about the melding of art and science in which the basic structures of life are being depicted by 3-D films  in ways that allow  researcher to understand the complex structures  and their interactions in different ways. This is another example of ways in which most basic mechanisms of life are coming to light in ways that will provide practical benefits in relative short order as it relates to disease treatment.

A couple of years ago, I needed to help a family member who was diagnosed with a bone marrow disorder which resulted in too few red cells being produced. In examining the structures of the different components of the blood, I needed to create a memory enhancement mechanism that would allow me to understand and recall the purpose and function of each blood component. I created in my mind a full war with various  battle scenarios in which each blood cell type part played a different role. Leukocytes; the first responders—Marines sent in to establish beachheads seeking out the enemy protein bacteria and viruses, bonding to their proteins for eventual removal. Second wave; the granulocytes and macrophages, main force units arriving to surround and destroy enemy cells by cutting off their nutrients. The hemoglobin, transport units in the blood, carrying all the needed oxygen to every part of our body. It was simplistic at best but as I have only lately started to study the science of cell structures it is what I needed to understand.  I could hear each type speak to me in their own language, interact and communicate in an organized way in the language of the blood. When I saw the title of the book review The Mind of a Disease came to my attention I hoped it was about a book in which the mind of human science was reaching out to understand the language of particular diseases in a fashion that would allow two way communication.  The idea is not new I came to learn. So I am reading more about it and will convey some of what I find here.

Jeff Newman