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The rise of computational medicine

October 1, 2022

From the doctor

photo of two scientists viewing data on a computer screen

Medical research is in the midst of the "big data" revolution. What is it? Until the past 20 years, most laboratory re-search involved simple ideas that could be tested by simple experiments. For example, 70 years ago the biochemist Linus Pauling discovered the cause of sickle cell disease. In this disease, misshapen red blood cells clog up small blood vessels, leading children and young adults to have recurrent bouts of excruciating pain and even strokes and heart attacks.

Pauling bet that the children had inherited a defect in a specific protein, globin, that caused the protein, and then the red blood cell, to become misshapen. The simple idea led to a simple experiment. He put globin from people with and without the disease into a gel. Then, he turned on an electric current that caused the globin to move through the gel. Diseased globin moved differently from healthy globin. Anyone could see the difference, just looking at the gel. No fancy analysis was necessary.

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