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Message from the MGH

The spectacular productivity of epidemiological studies.

Winter 2008
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Epidemiological studies move at the speed of life. Given the vast knowledge they yield, there’s no substitute for that pace, at least judging by the Framingham Heart Study, which has been playing out in real time for 60 years (and counting). It’s because of Framingham that we know that high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity are all major risk factors for cardiovascular disease (even the phrase risk factor is a Framingham product). This living laboratory has also provided valuable insights into the health effects of age, gender, family history, diet and psychosocial factors.

The tradeoff for such spectacular productivity is that research results surface only after decades of watching and waiting. In contrast, following generations of laboratory mice may take just months. What’s more, with researchers now able to manipulate the genetic makeup of animal subjects, experiments can be ever more tightly focused. Add to that the increasingly sophisticated experiments that are being designed with such short-lived organisms as fruit flies, and researchers can get surprisingly rapid answers to very specific questions.

In this issue of Proto, we explore both approaches—the epidemiological and the experimental—to solving the mysteries of disease. Each is enjoying swifter progress because of technological advances during the past decade. In animal testing, computers operate in a symbiosis through which better computational models lead to smarter animal experiments and then to more precise computer simulations of disease and treatment. Similarly, Framingham’s next chapter, in which the study’s population data is being correlated with DNA samples to find the genetic underpinnings of disease, will hasten results thanks as much to the next generation of gene chips as to the latest generation of Framingham subjects.

Yet technology can only fast-forward research by so much. There’s still irreplaceable value in allowing life to take its course under a scientist’s watchful eye. Even in basic research, in which cells divide in a flash, progress depends wholly upon a researcher’s willingness to try, try again—and to formulate the right questions to test. In research, as with everything, patience is virtue.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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