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Biomedicine is science – and business

By Sam Boykin
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Nathaniel Comfort believes passionately that biomedicine is one of the most important and powerful cultural forces in the world today. He also believes the industry is plagued by false promises and hypocrisy. Comfort, an associate professor in the history of medicine department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tackles this issue with satirical humor on his blog Follow Comfort on Twitter at @nccomfort.

Q: Why is biomedicine such an important cultural force?

In a historical sense, medicine has not always been scientific. The history of 20th-century medicine is the integration of science with medicine. During this time, health has become an increasingly important public issue. The one thing that unites us all is we’re all going to get sick. In addition to being a big social issue, the health care industry – including biotechnology, gene sequencing companies and the pharmaceutical industry – is also an enormous economic force.

Q: What are some of the biomedicine myths and false promises you target?

Any industry with this much clout is going to have some hype associated with it, and sometimes it uses this hype to sell us things for profit rather than health. One example of this is gene therapy. In the ’80s, there was a huge amount of discussion about how we were going to fix our genes like they were carburetors in our cars, and end all disease. But for many years, gene therapy was almost completely unsuccessful. Turns out genes are a lot more complicated than we realized. The goal of gene therapy was scaled back considerably. Now the promise is that certain diseases in certain instances can be helped. But in many cases gene therapy is still being oversold.

Q: What’s the future role of biomedicine?

It will continue to evolve and improve. It’s going to become a larger aspect of our daily lives. If you look back over the last century or so, the defining aspects of human life have been race, class and gender. But now there’s a fourth category: health. We’re increasingly finding community and our own sense of identity in terms of our health status. And within biomedicine itself, we’re learning to control and engineer our biology and bodies more powerfully. This has a lot of potential for good, and it also has some very scary implications. This is where we’re headed, and hopefully we can steer it in the most positive direction by being aware of the pitfalls and avoiding them.

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