For most of recorded history, medicine has been qualitative in nature, relying on subjective feedback from patients and anecdotal prescriptions from physicians. Medicine today is becoming more and more quantitative in nature. The Wall Street Journal yesterday reported what they described as “high-tech recycling”, where researchers have developed an innovative way to use already-approved drugs that have been used to treat a particular disease to work on diseases they were not intended to combat (see Scientists Report Advance in Drug Repurposing – WSJ.com).
Using a computer science technology called high-throughput computing (HTC), researchers were able to scan National Institutes of Health public databases containing the results of thousands of genomic studies to focus on 100 diseases and 164 drugs where normal and diseased tissue samples, drugged and not drugged, were compared. The program then looked for cases where a drug created a change in gene activity that was opposite to the gene activity caused by a disease, on the hunch that this might indicate the drug could be an effective treatment. For example, suppose a patient had a problem with their liver and the cause was an abnormality of the ABC gene. The XYZ drug used to treat heart problems happens to have an effect that corrects the abnormality of the ABC gene. Even though the XYZ drug was designed for heart problems, it may also be a cure for a liver problem. A real example is that researchers found that cimetidine, an ulcer drug, might be effective in treating lung cancer. I believe that the bioinformatic merger of biology and computer science is likely to change the practice of medicine more in the next decade than all of the changes of the past century.