Every year non-communicable diseases (such as cancer, heart disease and
diabetes) kill 36 million people worldwide, a quarter of whom die
before the age of 60. This week’s high-level United Nations meeting tackled this issue. In
anticipation of this meeting, many prominent scientists came together to write
a statement, published in Genome
Medicine, about the role of systems medicine in the prevention and
treatment of non-communicable diseases.
Systems medicine can be thought of as a
patient-centered holistic approach that combines medical information with wider
knowledge about health and disease such as the effects of human genetics,
environment and behavior. The team proposed a grand vision based around
the four ‘p’s – predictive, preventative, personalized and participatory – medicine.
Information and communication technologies are a vital element of this
proposal, but so too are primary healthcare providers, who are able to look at a
patient as a whole person. This is important because diseases appear to be
somehow linked; that is, people with a non-communicable disease tend to suffer from two
or more of them.
In response, Wylie Burke, also writing in Genome Medicine, acknowledged the potential of this approach but
emphasized that progress will not be made without tackling social issues such
as poverty, bad housing and restricted access to education and
In all probability
both approaches are likely to go hand in hand. Systems medicine will help
untangle the complex relationships between lifestyle and disease, and will
pinpoint opportunities for prevention. But without a drive towards better
public health, the number of deaths from non-communicable diseases will
continue to increase.