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Human Disease Networks

Traditionally, doctors think about human illness in terms of the tissues involved with a particular disease. However, biologists have recently begun to think of diseases through the genetic mutations that cause them. Researchers in the United States and Korea have assembled the “human disease network” and the “disease gene network,” which are graphs with diseases and genes as the nodes and edges. In the human disease network, each node is a disease and they are interconnected by the genes associated with them. The disease gene network is the same graph with the nodes and edges switched so that the genes associated with many diseases can be easily visualized.

Just as in a friendship network, the concept of power can be established in a disease network. In a friendship network, a person is powerful when they have many friends and can therefore influence a lot of people in the network. In the disease network, a gene could be considered powerful when its mutation has an established link to many diseases, and manipulation of that gene could exhibit control over those diseases. The practical application of this concept is for researchers to focus their studies on “powerful” genes in an effort to treat more diseases per research dollar. Alternatively, treatments that have been successfully developed for one disease may turn out to have therapeutic effect in patients who have diseases that are connected to it via an edge in the human disease network. Taking the networks approach to disease treatment may very well save lives, as researchers are studying treatment options that may not have been considered if it weren’t for this approach.


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September 2011