Early detection and prevention in health research

Here is a link to a Wired article written way back in 2008 by Thomas Goetz titled “Why Early Detection Is the Best Way to Beat Cancer“. Although the article itself is four years old now, early detection continues to be the most promising direction for treatment and research not only for cancer, but many other diseases, including mental illness.

Can early detection + fish oil reduce schizophrenia?
Photo: © Swamin | 
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You may know that cancer progression is divided into stages, e.g., Stage I, II, III, or IV cancer, with Stage I having the best survival rate if it is detected in time, and Stage IV the worst. The problem is that many obvious symptoms of cancer are not apparent in their early stages. This is why medicine has recently been so focused on trying to find early signs of cancer, such as biomarkers or even genetic vulnerabilities that put people at risk for developing cancer.

What many of you may not know is that some researchers are trying to make the “staging” model relevant for mental illness as well. In particular, Professor Pat McGorry at Orygen Youth Health Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia (disclaimer alert: I used to work there), is focused on modelling psychosis and schizophrenia as “stages” much in the same way that cancer is. In this way, he and other researchers like him hope to be able to detect early signs of psychosis in young people before the disease becomes full blown schizophrenia. That way, young people at risk for developing this disorder can get treatment as early as possible to ensure a good outcome.

Of course, there are some researchers that believe we should not focus too much on early intervention for young people. For example, some treatments for these diseases are drugs that may have unwanted side effects, especially in young people whose brains and bodies are still developing. However, some of these treatments are as innocuous as fish oil tablets (see a study here showing they may prevent psychotic disorder in people at high risk for it), and sometimes can involve behavioural therapy or intervention instead of medication, especially for other mental disorders such as depression.

I would love to hear thoughts from both sides about early intervention and prevention, both in the areas of mental health and other physical diseases.


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