Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Hi-tech medicine and the Amish

Or, when technology met some seriously orthodox, tech-averse people living in the midst of some 250 tech-lovers -- the Amish. In health sciences, "genetic medicine" is about as hi-tech as it gets.

Most Indians -- why, even most Americans! -- would have encountered the Amish only through movies (and, to a lesser extent, documentaries). One of the movies I recall is this wonderful murder mystery called "Witness" with Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis and Lukas Haas. I believe the movie's depiction of the Amish and their lifestyle is quite authentic. But, I must confess that I am not sure.

This wonderful (but long) article in the New York Times by Lisa Belkin explains the Amish angle to modern (read technology-driven) medicine. The connection is because the Amish are ideal for studies in this new, new thing in medicine.

At first, the juxtaposition seems a paradox - this simple culture being treated at Morton's high-tech clinic, which sits literally in the middle of an alfalfa field in Strasburg, Pa. But look more closely, and it makes perfect sense. These groups, known collectively as the Plain People, have long been entwined with genetic research in the United States. Because members keep to themselves and marry within their communities, they rarely get to shuffle their genetic decks, and they are afflicted with a wide variety of rare diseases in far greater frequency than the population as a whole. For more than 30 years, genetic researchers have flocked here to study them, identifying the mutations that cause dozens of disorders by using samples of Amish and Mennonite blood. (McKusick's groundbreaking book, "Medical Genetic Studies of the Amish," was published back in 1978.) Most researchers, though, swoop in from their universities, collect their samples, then return to their labs. Morton is the first who has stayed, not just researching but also treating - taking tomorrow's health care to a world that lives in yesterday.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Witness is OK, as far as it goes, for depictions of Amish life. More interesting, if you can get ahold of it on video or DVD, is the recent documentary Devil's Playground which looks at a handful of Amish teenagers during rumspringa, or "running wild", when they experience all the temptations of the modern world before deciding whether to become full members of the church.

    The director's commentary on the DVD has some interesting discussion about which aspects of the modern technological world the Amish have decided are OK, and which they've put off limits. As I recall, these decisions tend to be made community by community (since there's no Amish equivalent of a Pope). Genetic testing and potentially gene therapy probably fall in to the complicated considerations of these sorts.

  2. Abi said...

    Dr. Free-Ride, thanks for your comment. The information about the Amish is useful. Perhaps when films become available on the internet (for a small price) I will get a chance to watch it. Until then, for many of us here in India, I suppose Witness is going to be our main source.