Summer 2008: Prelude

Influence of the sphere

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

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In the fifth Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry must battle the dark wizard Voldemort over something they both desperately want—not a magic sword or a powerful wand, but a prophecy. Locked away at the Ministry of Magic in a vast hall filled with thousands of glass spheres, each containing a sliver of the future, this particular prophecy reveals something about how Harry—or Voldemort—might die.

Which prompts the question: if you could sneak into a government building and steal a glass sphere that shows you how you’ll die, would you?

Really, how could you resist?

No such building exists, of course, nor is there a crystal ball tucked away somewhere that can tell your future; that’s the stuff of children’s fantasy (which my son happens to be reading even as I write).

But the body in which you’re breathing right now holds augury of its own, and its parts and processes can predict the future with better precision than tea leaves or palmistry. Maybe you have a strong heart, weak lungs, or the gene for breast cancer. Maybe your liver is struggling or your white blood cells are swarming to ward off an unwelcome guest. Maybe you have your mother’s high blood pressure, your dad’s tendency toward abdominal fat, or your grandma’s remarkable ability to sleep twelve hours at a stretch.

On a day-to-day basis, assuming we’re reasonably healthy, most of us give such conditions little thought. But Emory researchers are probing deeply into what our bodies know—and what they might be able to tell us about our future health.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Center for Health Discovery and Well-Being, a new project of the Emory/Georgia Tech Predictive Health Institute. During the course of two long visits, I was gently poked and prodded, answered dozens of questions, gave what seemed a gallon of blood (though they assured me it was only three ounces), walked on a treadmill, and had pictures taken of my arteries and my body scanned on a machine.

At the end of the process, my assigned “health partner,” Lisa DuPree, presented me with a thick binder of information about myself—a picture of my health, shot from a dozen different angles. We discussed the results and a plan for maintaining and improving my physical well-being.

Body scans and blood chemistry may not be as easy to interpret as a prophecy in a crystal ball, but they can nonetheless offer a window to the future. Through the Center for Health Discovery and more than twenty related projects, scientists here are striving to understand what basic health looks like and why the picture changes over time. The health assessment reports of hundreds of subjects like me will become part of a much bigger picture, hopefully revealing the path to new forms of disease prevention.

Such knowledge about ourselves can be frightening, but it can also be enlightening. It can show us how to change our habits and begin new practices that may help maximize our chances for good health, whatever our personal portrait might look like. Even our genetic makeup can be modified by our choices and behavior. Unlike Harry Potter, we have the chance to shape our prophecies.

And while most of us can’t know how we will leave this life, we can exert some influence over what happens to the body that stays behind—as evidenced by the many alumni and others who have chosen to donate their bodies to the School of Medicine through Emory’s Body Donor Program. Their gift allows medical students to learn the secrets of the human form, helping to ensure skilled health care and medical advances for future generations.

It’s probably a good thing that we can’t go to a shelf and take down a magical glass sphere to learn our fates. If we could, I suspect many of this year’s graduates would have been sorely tempted as they processed into the Quad for the Commencement ceremony, wondering what tomorrow might bring.

But when it comes to our health, a clearer picture can improve our lives today and for years to come. I’ll take that over a crystal ball any time.

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