Research leads to health care changes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Imagine a world in which you carry your entire DNA profile on a plastic card in your wallet, which your doctor could swipe through a machine to make a nearly instantaneous diagnosis.

Or a world where such diseases as Alzheimer's, cancer or depression have been cured or controlled with new "designer" drugs.

Now imagine this world -- employers and insurance companies able to weed out workers who may be prone to certain diseases; governments or private entities with information on your genetic makeup; the chance to "design" children before they're born.

Both these worlds are coming -- and in the not-so-distant future, say experts and scientists involved in current medical research.

"We can't begin to imagine what life will look like even 30 years from now," said Richard Brown, director of the Life Sciences division at Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City. "The research going on now will have both tremendous benefits and tremendous problems. ... I don't think you can envision anything that can't happen."

The dizzying changes to come began with the mapping of the human genome, the catalog of DNA needed to make an organism. Researchers are moving even deeper into the cells to study proteins within the genes. It's called proteomics -- and experts say it will change everything we currently know about health care.

Designer drugs discovery

The research is aimed at fighting diseases, most of which occur because of variations and reactions in the proteins. Researchers also are studying the affects of toxins, such as anthrax or pollution, on proteins.

"What we are trying to do is find the molecular lock and key," said John Phillip, director of the pharmaceutical product development division at MRI. "Reactions in the cells are usually driven by the proteins, so we need to know how they work."

The hope is for discoveries leading to "designer drugs" that will target specific proteins to either prevent or more effectively treat diseases.

"I don't think many Americans realize how revolutionary this research is going to be," Phillip said. "Within 30 years, we will be having an entirely different conversation, with entirely new pharmaceuticals."

The research may help the mind as well as the body, said Dr. Dale Horst, director of the Psychiatric Research Institute at Via-Christi Medical Center in Wichita. Discoveries already made in the fight against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's may eventually translate into better treatments for mental illness.

"The hope is that basic research will find common features in these diseases. There's a lot of work going on in that area already," Horst said. "We have a way to go on things like schizophrenia and depression. But given some time, that certainly is what I see happening."

The rush to be part of the biomedical frontier has reached into Kansas and Missouri. In the Kansas City-area, the Life Sciences Institute has brought together universities, research institutions and hospitals in an effort to make the area a nationally known center for life sciences research.

Marketing research

The St. Louis region has dubbed itself the center of the BioBelt, promoting and marketing a strong research base in both human and plant sciences. The Missouri Biotechnology Association, a statewide nonprofit group, promotes and recruits life sciences research and any resulting businesses for the state.

And Missouri Gov. Bob Holden earlier this year signed legislation and an executive order dedicating $21.5 million from Missouri's share of the national tobacco settlement for life sciences research.

Despite these efforts, turning basic research into publicly available drugs will take many years, public education and lots of money. The machines needed for the research are astronomically expensive, and new labs, more scientists and venture capital are required.