The End of Illness?

David Agus, a distinguished oncologist and pioneering biomedical researcher, planned to title his new book “What is Health?” But one of his most famous patients -Apple’s Steve Jobs – instead insistered the book be named “The End of Illness”.  Wishful thinking? Agus argues that it is not. Apple’s cofounder could not be saved because advanced cancers are mostly untreatable. But Agus, who is scheduled to speak at the DLD conference in Munich January 22-24, believes most diseases can be avoided by making the right lifestyle choices and leveraging innovation in information technology and the sciences, such as computer modeling and protein analysis.

Augus is the co-founder of three companies: Navigenics, a personal genetic testing company; Oncology.com, an online cancer resource and virtual community; and Applied Proteomics. He recently talked to Informilo’s Jennifer L. Schenker about his theories and his new book, which was published by Simon & Shuster on January 14.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: Sometimes you have to go to war to understand peace. I spent 25 years treating advanced cancer and failing most of the time.  I believe that most cancers can be prevented or delayed and almost all illness can be avoided through technology, drugs, and lifestyle choices but we are not doing it.

Q: What can individuals do to take charge of their own health?

A. Taking an aspirin a day reduces the overall rate of cancer by 20%, taking statins can also significantly reduce the incidence of cancers. Inflammation is a culprit, so getting a flu shot helps. Walk and move rather than sit. The more regular you can make your schedule, the better.

Q: But people who do all of those things sometimes get sick anyway. Isn’t it a fallacy to believe we can control health?

A: I am an optimist. I see hope. If, for example, I can delay Alzheimer’s in a patient for five or six years, I might have a drug to treat it by then.

Q: If technology and life style choices enable people to take a bigger role in their own health, should there be  economic sanctions if they choose to smoke, don’t exercise, or are overweight?

A: There does need to be culpability. If you do the wrong thing you should pay more.

Q: What role can technology play in curbing illness?

A: If we really want to achieve a productive society, we have to look at the real data and use technology to model disease in the body as a complex system. Big data allows us to start to see trends and understand outcomes.

Q: How will data mining help?

A: There exists a staggering opportunity to make medical records electronic and collect data. But every country has their own data standards so if we don’t develop a global standard we won’t reap the benefits. We need to learn from the data. Today we can track what a consumer is doing with their credit cards and change the product placement in retail stores accordingly. We ought to be able to do the same in medicine.  There is a new field called proteomics that will allow us to see and process a huge amount of data so that we can actually learn what is going on rather than rely on the descriptors.

Q: Won’t that raise privacy issues?

A: We need to strip the data of identifiers and set some standards so we can learn from it.

Q: Do we need an independent global body that could set international technical standards for the exchange of medical data?

A: I certainly think it is needed. We need a world convention and could learn from bodies like the Gates Foundation and WHO on how to do something like this. If we really want to achieve a productive society we have to look at the real data and use technology to model disease in the body as a complex system.

Q: Could venture capital and the capital markets play a bigger role in advancing health care?

A: All of the money is going into IT and not into biotech and health care. The capital markets have to change in this regards. This is the century of convergence of the sciences and this convergence will most definitely include information technology. Putting them together will lead to the next big advances.

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