Conclusion

The sophisticated immune systems of humans and other animals have evolved as a dialogue between species and the diseases that arise in their environments. Microbes also evolve as a response to the environment of their hosts' bodies. Studies of genomes reveal that disease-related genes change at a faster pace than most other DNA sequences, because any mutation that helps an animal resist disease can have a major impact on its ability to survive and reproduce.

Modern medicine began with the discovery that microorganisms cause disease and with vaccines and modern drugs that can combat many of them, taking advantage of the way the immune system copes with infectious diseases. But in many of these cases, cures do not yet exist, partly because viruses such as HIV mutate quickly and outwit the body's defenses.

Defeating these sophisticated invaders will require a new type of medicine based on interfering with molecules and processes within cells. The same approach will be necessary to treat today's greatest killers: heart disease, cancer, and neuro-degenerative disorders. Many of these problems can be traced to defects in genes or processes within cells that do not cause problems until old age. They are built into the system, so solving them will require adjusting the system by replacing defective molecules and molecular machines.

These measures will not cure all of humanity's health problems, however. Eventually everyone dies. One day medicine will likely rid humanity of its most dangerous diseases; then people will die for other reasons. Over the next century science may be able to raise the average life expectancy considerably. The quality of that life, however, will still depend on healthy behavior. Unfortunately, the same culture that has brought progress in medicine has led to a lifestyle in which people do not eat well or get enough exercise and in which they abuse their bodies with drugs. Obesity and type 2 diabetes, in which exercise and diet play a huge role, affect more people at an earlier age than ever before. The lesson to be learned is that even the most modern medicine will not protect people from themselves.

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