Leland Hartwell, the 2001 Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology and Medicine, said in Taipei yesterday that advances in molecular diagnostics might soon help doctors catch cancer at the earliest stages through analysis of bodily fluids for protein markers.
Hartwell made the remarks at this year's Formosa Medical Association's (FMA) annual conference, which was attended by FMA members and other professionals.
"Despite the enormous amount of knowledge we now have of the mechanisms through which cells become cancerous, there has been little progress in reducing the death rate from from cancer since the fifties," said Hartwell. "We all know that detecting cancer early is the way to save lives."
Cancer patients often do not discover their cancers until the disease is well-advanced because the early stages of cancer are symptom-free, Hartwell told the audience. Early detection techniques such as colonoscopies are effective but expensive and invasive, she said.
DNA analysis has the disadvantage of needing an actual sample from the site of the cancer, said Hartwell, while protein markers have the advantage of being detectable in bodily fluids.
"What we need now is more inexpensive, sensitive, quantitative assays for detecting the protein markers," said Hartwell.
According to Hartwell, the lack of economic incentives are a major roadblock to progress in the field of molecular epidemiology in the US.
"Pharmaceutical companies can charge whatever the market will bear," said Hartwell. "But diagnostians are only compensated for the cost of doing the assay."
Despite this, Hartwell is optimistic that this technology will move rapidly forward.
"This is going to revolutionize medicine in the next 10 years," predicted Hartwell, who added that in addition to the detection of cancer, molecular diagnostics techniques could be applied to other diseases in the future.
In addition to Hartwell, many cutting-edge researchers and practitioners from Taiwan and all over the world have gathered for this year's FMA conference, which will continue until the thirteenth of November.
The conference is one part of Taiwan Medical Week, which also includes the 28th World Congress of Internal Medicine, the 2006 Taipei International Medical Equipment and Pharmaceuticals Show (MediPhar), and a series of Public Health seminars.