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Predictive medicine: Genes indicate diseases before symptoms do

Madison, Wis. — Since Hippocrates, born a few centuries before Christ, health care has focused on responding to symptoms of disease. Known as the “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates was the first physician to observe and accurately describe disease symptoms.

Today, doctors still follow the same basic paradigm for healthcare, said William Clarke, executive vice president and chief technology and medical officer of GE Healthcare in Waukesha. Clarke gave the keynote address at the Wisconsin Biotechnology & Medical Device Association conference on October 26. But health care is undergoing a revolution, and waiting until symptoms appear is no longer good enough, he said.

“We are going to see patients and non-patients getting pre-disposition profiling,” he said. He added that physicians will take family history into account when choosing preventative measures.

A paper published in 2002 marked the beginning of a new era in medical diagnostics, he said. This paper, “Gene Patterns Can Predict Disease Progression and Influence Choice of Treatment,” was published in the journal Nature Medicine and made him exclaim out loud when he read it.

The research has helped scientists predict who may develop cancer, what therapies doctors will choose, and who is going to respond to certain therapies to increase survival rates, he said. Anti-angiogenesis agents, or drugs that curb blood vessels to kill cancer cells, were developed in response to these discoveries, he noted.
GE Healthcare developed a method using radioactive molecules that can detect angiogenesis before traditional diagnostic tools, such as mammograms, can detect tumors. In combination with genetic screening for predisposition, these tools can target populations at risk and are able to detect and treat disease at a much earlier stage, increasing cure rates.

He also compared burgeoning medical knowledge to the scientific process of crystal development. “When does more information become less knowledge?” he asked, underscoring what sometimes happens when a solution becomes “super saturated” and crystals do not form.

Clarke likened the new medical horizons to a tapestry, where diagnostics, research and discoveries become “designers and weavers of healthcare,” noting that one person in three will develop cancer in their lifetime, and one in 20 may already have it but not know it.

“We need to be better in preventive medicine,” he said.

Christine Javid is a Madison-based freelance writer for WTN and can be reached at

Mike Klein contributed reporting from the conference.

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