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Diagnose this: A look at anticipating and preventing disease


As discussed here earlier this week, the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine explores the meaning and future of diagnostics.

But what exactly is diagnostics? For a patient with an infection, it might just mean finding out which pathogen is causing the infection so a doctor can prescribe the right antibiotic. Or finding out why a bout of knee pain just won’t go away.

For biomedical researchers, diagnostics can be about inventing ways to catch an illness early, before we even notice it ourselves. We already have a few tests designed to do this: mammograms to catch tiny breast cancers and the colonoscopy to look for signs of colon cancer.

Such tests are typically given infrequently, years apart. Nobody is going to submit to a monthly mammogram, let alone a weekly colonoscopy. Nor would insurers pay for that. But what if we could continuously monitor ourselves for signs of disease using technologies that are cheap, non-invasive, safe and don’t interfere with our daily habits?

That’s what professor of radiology Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, director of the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection, envisions. He sees a world where we monitor our health nearly continuously. Are we developing tiny aggressive tumors or organ-damaging high blood pressure? As I wrote in the magazine's lead story:

Diagnostics have moved far beyond old-fashioned X-rays for broken bones. We already live in a world where, if we wanted, we could monitor our health around the clock with a variety of ingenious devices that can potentially help foretell illness.

Heart monitors that send an alarm to a patient’s doctor already exist and save lives. But there’s much more to come. Researchers in Gambhir’s lab are designing a smart bra to continuously look for breast tumors and a smart toilet that can evaluate 10 measures of health daily.

Such an approach is the very essence of precision health at Stanford, whose vision is to anticipate and prevent disease in the healthy and to precisely diagnose and treat disease in the ill.

Previously: The power and limits of zeroing in: Stanford Medicine magazine on diagnostics, Finding the heart of precision health and Mystery solved: Researchers use genetic tools to diagnose young girl’s rare heart condition
Illustration by Paul Wearing

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