Medical science made a wrong turn in the 1920s, according to Dr David Agus. An experiment took a dozen people with significant cuts on their legs, and treated half of them by wrapping bread dipped in water around the leg and half by leaving the leg open to the air. People with the bread on their legs healed twice as fast, and that spawned something called germ theory.
‘Germ theory says that as soon as you know what you’re up against, you know how to fix it. There was mould on the bread which made penicillin which attacked the bacteria. But while looking through the microscope to see what you’ve got is right for diseases like bacterial infection, it is not right for diseases from within the body – like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. We have kept looking at the diseased cell, but we should be looking at the whole system.’
And that is the approach that Dr Agus takes at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he heads the Norris Westside Cancer Center and the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. He has worked closely with two non-medics in his researches: Danny Hillis, a pioneer in supercomputers; and Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel prizewinning physicist. By working with a physicist and a computer expert, he has come to see diseases in bodies as products of a complex system. ‘It has radically changed how we think about health, wellness and disease. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and drugs can help people live longer, but there are newer, better ways to prevent and treat diseases. If people come to me with cancer, I can sequence its DNA, know what its on- and off-switches are, and identify the right treatment – such as taking the brakes off their immune system to attack the cancer.’
He has treated many distinguished patients, such as the late Steve Jobs whose life he extended after previous treatments had failed. In his laboratory, he develops new treatments and diagnostic techniques, which are spun off to companies he has founded for marketing and production. And he brings his findings to larger audiences by writing books and newspaper articles, and through regular appearances on CBS This Morning.
His first book, The End of Illness, became an international bestseller, setting out his views on what it means to be healthy and how to achieve it. He tells readers not to take vitamins and supplements, to avoid juicing and detoxes, and to eat more fish and fresh food. And he urges them to take more control over their lives, giving them the best data available, and telling them how to use it.
‘There’s a pill that can reduce the death rate of cancer by 30 per cent, of heart diseases by 22 per cent and of strokes by 17 per cent. It’s over 2,400 years old, it costs USD3 a year and it’s called the baby aspirin. Yet most people over 40 have never considered taking this remarkable preventive pill.
“We should design offices and schools to maximise walking during the day.”
‘More movement during the day has a dramatic effect on disease and life expectancy. A study of 26,000 London bus drivers and conductors in the 1950s found that although they weighed the same and lived in similar environments, the conductors who walked up and down the doubledecker buses selling tickets had much lower rates of heart disease than the drivers who sat for most of the time. ‘Humans were designed to move, but we have become a nation of bus drivers. The more important you are at work, the closer your car is to your desk. The richer you are, the more bathrooms you have and you don’t have to walk so far to the bathroom. We should design offices and schools to maximise walking during the day. ‘We live longer every year – clearly by doing good things like smoking less and eating healthily. However, it is not just what we eat that matters, but when we eat – people who graze have 81 per cent more diabetes on a weight adjusted basis. We were designed by nature to make a kill and eat a meal in the morning and at night.
‘There’s an amazing European study showing that for every year of delay in retirement, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is reduced by almost 3 per cent. If you don’t use it, you lose it! We need to redesign the working life to keep the brain active – learn a language, take up a hobby, give back and challenge yourself.’
He is dedicated to finding novel approaches for personalised healthcare that can make people healthier. And he sees a big role for individual involvement, through home machines that can measure blood pressure and pulse, and detect irregular heartbeat. There are smartphone devices that can carry out an electrocardiogram, and then search a million EKGs on the Cloud to see if it is normal.
‘At the moment, people go to doctors who take tests and phone through the results later before making a plan. Measuring blood pressure at home can provide much better data on how it rises and falls through the day and identify probable causes such as stress or relaxation. This can help patients learn lessons for themselves, and share the data with their doctor for review and to agree what is needed.
‘Personalised medicine needs to use much more data: the patient’s DNA profile, their proteome [which reveals biomarkers for diseases in body fluids], their family history, and so on. It is time to throw “one-sizefits-all medicine” out of the window.’