Equations that Spell Disaster

Researchers are pinpointing the factors that combine to produce complex diseases.

Juan Carlos Solon

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the Category 5 storm caused such severe and lingering damage because it encountered the perfect combination of vulnerabilities: weak infrastructure, poor lines of communication, and a dysfunctional emergency rescue system. These conditions coalesced to produce one of the worst human catastrophes in recent US history. In a similar way, complex diseases result from a series of events that may not amount to much when considered one by one, but together, coalesce into a perfect storm that spells disaster for a particular organ or system.

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1 He and his colleagues had managed to express a variant of a Crohn’s susceptibility gene, known as ATG16L1, in mice. This gene had initially been identified in a subset of human patients....

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