Data is transforming the way we understand health care. Digital health and clinical informatics represent the integration of digital technologies into all levels of health research and the provision of health care, from understanding the causes of disease and streamlining the way doctors and hospitals work, through to incorporating genomics and big data into our understanding of health and disease.
The human genome is our blueprint for life. It contains all the information needed for us to grow and develop, consisting of 3.2 billion ‘letters’ of DNA and over 20,000 ‘chapters’ in the form of individual genes. Genomic medicine seeks to read and analyse our genome to gain insights into how each of us is different, as well as understand the causes of malfunction and disease. Bioinformatics combines mathematics, statistics and computer science to solve complex biological problems, including analysing the vast amounts of data produced by genome sequencers.
In contrast to pharmaceutical small molecule drugs, cell and biological therapies use substances made from living organisms to treat disease. These substances may occur naturally in the body or be made in the laboratory. Some biological therapies stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. Other biological therapies attack specific cancer cells, which may help keep them from growing or kill them. They may also lessen certain side effects caused by some cancer treatments.
Types of biological therapy include immunotherapy (such as vaccines, cytokines and some antibodies), gene therapy and some targeted therapies.
Most pharmaceutical medicines are small molecule drugs, such as acetylsalicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. These are chemically manufactured molecules that are easily ingestible and are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Most regulate a biological process by binding to a ‘target’ molecule in the body, such as on the surface of a cell. The drug then modifies the activity of that target or cell, such as by preventing the production of other chemicals that cause pain and inflammation, as in the case of acetylsalicylic acid.
Stem cells have the remarkable ability to become any of the hundreds of specialised cells that make up our bodies, from skin, kidney and bone cells through to neurons and red blood cells. Scientists have also figured out how to ‘reprogram’ specialised cells, such as a skin cell, and revert it to a stem cell. These ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, called iPS cells, can then be coaxed back into becoming any of the other cell types in our bodies. Regenerative medicine is the application of stem cells to repairing the damage from injury or disease
Immunology is the study of the immune system, which encompasses our bodies’ natural response to invading pathogens like bacteria and viruses, as well as to cancer. By understanding how the immune system works, we can better respond to infectious diseases like influenza or HIV and non-communicable diseases like cancer.
One of our main lines of defense against many diseases is vaccines, which prepare the immune system to be ready to respond if it is infected by the live pathogen. Immunology can also help us understand what happens when the immune system wrongly targets healthy cells, like what happens in autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis or type 1 diabetes.
A medical device is any instrument, apparatus or appliance used to diagnose, prevent or treat injury or disease. Medical devices range in complexity from an app on your smartphone through to computerised diagnostic machines. Implantable devices include an artificial hip, pacemaker or Cochlear bionic ear.
Medical and implantable devices can be used for a wide range of applications, such as diagnostics (for example, a blood pressure monitor) or to replace injured parts of the body (for example, a 3D-printed shinbone). Some can restore or improve function, such as a robotic prosthetic arm.
Population health researchers investigate how everyday factors such as age, sex, socioeconomic status and where someone lives affects their health. These researchers work with the general public and health care providers to optimise the provision of care to communities across Victoria, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. They also explore and assess how smart policy and targeted preventative measures can help people avoid ill health before they attend their GP or hospital emergency room.
Healthy public policy initiatives informed by population health research, such as mandatory seat belts, immunisation programs, anti-smoking policies and educational programs have already saved more lives than the efforts of all hospitals combined.