I have heard and read many definitions of what life is, what it means, what it means to lead a good life, etc. I am really not sure that ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is itself a meaningful question. Really, what is that supposed to be asking? Although structurally it is shaped as a question does it actually have any kind of real sense to it? I can ask, ‘What is the meaning of fruit?’ As far as I am concerned, even though grammatically that is correct, the question has no real utility. Is ‘What is the meaning of life’ a fruitful question to pose?
Perhaps we should consult the greats!
Life as Comedy
Yes, it is that point in our relationship (already?) when we talk about Monty Python. There must always come a time when one talks about Monty Python. Perhaps that is the meaning of life. The Pythons famously made a movie of the same name. It was the last that they made together. It is definitely funny. But what does it tell us about life? Well, the film is constructed in chapters – basically a bunch of comedy sketches. Perhaps life can be segmented into a nice and easy, definable, linear structure? We are born, develop, learn, grow in to adulthood, perhaps have our own children, if so teach them how to be men or women to be proud of, grow old and you know what follows that. But that isn’t really anything much more than a description of simple change and development. I rather believe that there is no great mystery of the kind I am feebly attempting to discuss here. There is no hidden meaning, nothing in particular to aim for. Life is. That may or may not sound deep. It isn’t. I started my adult life learning to be a biologist and I look at life through biology-tinted spectacles (are there any others to look through?). Life just is.
Invention Is the Mother of Discovery and Vice Versa
But I can ask a, to my mind, far more useful question. What is life? How does it work? By that I mean, for example, how does a cell work and, rather importantly to all of us, how does a good cell turn bad and how can one prevent that, or if not preventable, fix it? I will turn to my favourite topic, to something I find interesting beyond measure. How invention (technology) can lead to discovery and ever greater knowledge and understanding of life and the life sciences. We all want more. More this. More that. I think I can find one thing that we all or nearly all want more of: life. Technology, more than anything in today’s world, is a tool for understanding life, improving quality of life and even extending life.
Let me tell you about technology that really can tell you about life and not in any obscure or surreal or metaphysical mumbo-jumbo sense (can you detect my bias?) but actually tell you how life works and sometimes ‘mis-works’. OMICS. It isn’t even a word really but a suffix. It is part of the following: genomics, transcriptomics, epigenomics, proteomics, metabolomics, etc. and some of us, who lack for a better word, have started to use it to mean the above list and more. OMICS is about studying life (biology) on a grand scale; understanding as much as we possibly can of what has happened to DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids and metabolites, in a cell or tissue after some kind of perturbation such as infection or, of very great relevance to precision medicine, after a cancer has developed. What changed? Using transcriptomics and proteomics, for example, we can study mRNA and protein expression from genes that might be involved in causing a cancer. We might use genomics tools such as next generation sequencing (NGS) to identify the mutations in the cancer that caused the cell to ‘go bad’ and which are able to be treated (actionable mutations) and what treatment regime should be applied to that patient or group of patients.
I don’t need to tell you why you and I and indeed our society should be concerned about cancer. In the next few years cancer is predicted to become the leading cause of death in the USA, overtaking heart disease. This will cause a heavy economic burden and certainly reduce quality of life. A very positive review has very recently been published entitled ‘Omics Profiling in Precision Oncology’ by Yu and Snyder which gives an excellent idea of some of the recent work in genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics applied to precision medicine for oncology. The senior author, Prof. Mike Snyder of Stanford, is himself an OMICS pioneer and an example of someone who has for some time now been self-experimenting, applying all the above OMICs technologies (and more) to himself as a living, breathing human guinea pig. The gigantic set of data which has been created is sometimes referred to as the ‘Snyderome.’ He has been measuring this pan-OME for several years now and he gives a fascinating talk about his work in OMICS. Let me quote from this paper: ‘High throughput OMICS methods have greatly facilitated the development of precision oncology and are beginning to guide personalized cancer management. Here we summarize the key OMICS modalities useful for identifying clinical phenotypes, such as tumor types and subtypes, drug responses, and survival outcomes. OMICS technology can complement current clinical and pathology evaluations by discovering previously unknown subtypes with clinical implications, identifying patients’ prognoses, or predicting responses to treatments. Future studies on cancer mutations, functional aberrations, and OMICS integration have the potential to further improve the precision in precision medicine.’
So technology, or technologies, such as those applied in the OMICS, are helping us to rapidly uncover the mechanics of life (if not meaning) and applied to healthcare, beginning to have great utility in medical practice, particularly in oncology. I find this summary statement to be hugely encouraging; that OMICS technologies applied to oncology can indeed help us to prolong and improve life.
A Final Word
If you don’t know the meaning of life according to Monty Python, here it is:
"Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
Actually, that’s pretty good. I think I will just go and live the rest of my life doing that.
To learn more about cancer research at Thermo Fisher Scientific click here.
To learn more about next generation sequencing click here. For more on Mass spectrometry technology enabling proteomics and metabolomics click here.
Yu KH, Snyder M. Omics profiling in precision oncology. Mol Cell Proteomics.
2016 Apr 20. pii: mcp.O116.059253. [Epub ahead of print]