Health Tips & Info : Analysis And Synthesis In Cancer Research.

Consider a medical phenomenon, cancer. Which of the following do you think true?

A. Cancer is essentially a genetic disease.

B. Cancer is a disorder of unregulated proliferation of abnormal cells.

C. Smoking accounts for roughly 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the United States, overweight and obesity  account for 15-20 percent.

D. Inherited genetic dispositions contribute significantly to 5-10 percent of breast cancer and 5-13 percent of colon cancer incidences.

E. In the industrialized nations, roughly 7 percent of cancer deaths are attributable to viral infections; 4 percent to occupational hazards; 2 percent to sunlight; 2 percent to pollutions of air, water, and soil; and less than 1 percent to food additives and industrial products.

F. All of the above.

It is F, according to available scientific data, although some people reject any answer that does not conform to their pet ideology. Statements A to E describe cancer from the perspectives of different organizational levels: molecular, cellular, personal, familial, and environmental. A major achievement in cancer research is the introduction of a framework that accommodates phenomena in these levels and roughly explains their interrelationships. Its center of gravity lies on the molecular and cellular levels. Nevertheless, its explanations of how certain viruses, chemicals, and radiations contribute to cancer suggest links to environmental and social researches on people’s exposure to these carcinogens.

Cancer research underscores the systematic approach that makes natural science and modern engineering so powerful. Faced with a complex phenomenon, scientists analyze or reduce it to components and simpler factors that can be investigated thoroughly, for instance analyzing cancer development into cellular dynamics and gene mutations. The fruitfulness of the reductive approach is apparent when one compares the abundant solid knowledge it yields to the empty rhetoric of mystical holism that insists all is a seamless web impervious to analysis.

To analyze, however, is not to analyze away. Reducing cancer to genes is not subscribing to a dogmatic reductionism that regards a patient as nothing but a bag of genes. Despite the success and glamour of genetics and molecular biology in disease research, few if any researcher would disagree with the editors of a recent segment on complex diseases in Science: “It’s not just the genes.”

Holism that reviles analysis and reductionism that reviles synthesis are both detrimental to science, in which analysis and synthesis are complementary. For scientific research, reduction of a phenomenon into elements is incomplete if not followed by integration of relevant elements for the goal of explaining the original phenomenon. Socrates recommended the methods of division and collection. Galileo’s methods were described as resolution and composition. Newton explained the effects of analysis and synthesis in scientific investigations. Descartes followed a similar vein and went further to combine analysis and synthesis as two steps of a single method.

Perhaps the most comprehensive articulation comes from engineers. In designing complex systems such airplanes, engineers must ensure the functions of the airplane as an integral whole and specify minute details of its ten thousand parts that must work together. To rationalize design processes, they have developed systems engineering, in which analysis and synthesis are graphically depicted as the letter “V.” The downward stroke of the V represents the decomposition of a system into smaller and smaller parts and the upward stroke the assemblage of the parts into the system as a whole.

The systems-engineering V model can be extrapolated to science. Twentieth century biology mainly follows the downward stroke as it anatomizes organisms into organs and cells and molecules. Now that molecular biology has completely cataloged the genes for human and many other species, biology is turning the corner of the V. Centers of systems biology, which begin to appear in Harvard and other places, turn to study how molecular dynamics contributes to life phenomena on higher levels.

From : Sunny Y. Auyang Journal