Flinn Scholars

At public-policy seminar, Scholars grapple with future of medicine

March 10, 2011

By Flinn Foundation

Below, Scholar alum Gene Bukhman (’91) speaks about his work in Rwanda, and Scholars Ben Lang (’08) and Shruti Bala (’07) share their experiences at the seminar.

Ben Lang (’08)

On Saturday, February 12, Flinn scholars from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona converged at the Foundation’s offices for an intimate seminar with experts in the field of personalized medicine and other health-care fields. We would have been lucky to get to sit down for a chat with any one of them, but to have the four of them giving presentations and answering our questions was fantastic.

We received an overview of genomics from Bodour Salhia, a postdoctoral fellow in cancer genomics at the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, who explained everything from the most basic hows and whys of the field to an in-depth look at the history and current focuses of genomics. It is incredible to look at the progress we have made in the field, from completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 to a rapidly approaching day when genomics will play a role in a routine health checkup.

Cary Armstrong of Scottsdale Healthcare then explained her work as a certified genetic counselor, a job that seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. She uses genetic family trees to determine patients’ risk for certain cancers, and can then use genetic testing to check for the presence of particular genes relating to cancer and other diseases.

Next, Joan Shapiro, associate dean of research at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix, explained how these new technologies will change the face of modern medicine, previewing some of the successes and many of the issues the technology will face.

Finally, Gene Bukhman, a Flinn Scholar alumnus who is a cardiologist and director of the program in global non-communicable disease and social change at Harvard Medical School, gave a very different viewpoint, explaining the difficulties in implementing new technologies when the inequity and inequality of health worldwide is so great.

The group of students then replied with a host of well-thought-out questions on topics related to the legality, safety, and social justice of personalized medicine, as well as questions about the mechanics and science behind genomics and other personalized medical technologies. It was fantastic to have insights about the power and process of personalized medicine from several members of the medical community who are helping to define the field’s future, and especially to get to do so with such a bright group of Scholars with such important questions.

After our first panel discussion on personalized medicine, many people stayed afterwards to talk with Gene Bukhman about his work, his stories, and to hear a bit about the advice he had for undergraduates looking to work in global health.

Not only did we learn about the incredible work done by his colleagues at Partners in Health, but we also learned from Gene about the human side of a global human-rights worker. He explained the medical issues in Rwanda, where he regularly works as a cardiologist, and he explained the challenges and rewards of being maintaining a family and serving as a global health worker at the same time.

His advice for our future as students was also well received, as nearly 20 years ago he had been exactly where we are. While he encouraged us to get good grades, he noted that it was much more important to pursue our own interests and studies right now and to not frustrate ourselves too much with “saving the world” until we have more applicable training.

Especially wonderful was Gene’s willingness to have a conversation with us, and for us all to laugh and learn together–even though he had flown in at one in the morning the night before and planned to fly out again on a similar schedule that night. Our network of Scholars really does provide an incredible connection with some seriously incredible people.

Shruti Bala (’07)

Almost a decade after the completion of the Human Genome Project, the concept of personalized medicine is changing the practice of medicine and creating new implications of population-based health.

The Flinn Scholars program’s public-policy seminar on personalized medicine raised questions about and gave insights into a relatively new medical model that intensifies the focus on the individual. Throughout the course of the seminar–and still now–a range of questions are running through my mind:

How does our genetic blueprint influence our predisposition for disease, our ability to fight disease, or our capacity to respond to treatment? What are the next steps to mainstream and integrate personalized medicine into the health-care system to ensure that all individuals have equal access?

Prior to this seminar, my knowledge of personalized medicine and its practice was limited; I was under the impression that personalized medicine functioned independently and as an optional tool for doctors and patients. Presentations at the seminar from key leaders in genomics research, genetic counseling, cancer biology, and global health helped me better understand the integrated role of various health-care professionals when addressing disease prevention, treatment, and management under the personalized-medicine model.

As a future physician and public-health professional, I believe that an individual’s definition and experience of personal health is unique. Each and every diagnosis and treatment plan depends on the “who,” in addition to the “where and when” of an individual’s disease. I believe personalized medicine is a promising tool; it is an active process that focuses on preventing and targeting disease rather than reacting to disease. However, it needs to address the social, cultural, and economic factors that influence access to care in order to reduce health disparities between urban and rural populations, ethnic groups, and income categories.