Peat Bogs and Precision Medicine: Studying in Dublin and Stockholm

This session, I am studying Precision Medicine: Tailored Treatment in Clinical Practice. Precision medicine uses information about a patient’s history, genes, and protein composition to inform treatment and prevention measures.

I was drawn to this class because of my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago from Alzheimer’s Disease, which has no cure. I was hoping to explore neurodegenerative diseases on a deeper level and understand theoretical treatments. This class has allowed me to do exactly that. In addition, it has made me hopeful for the future of the medical field.

From Karolinska Institutet to a primary care clinic in Dublin, my class has been exploring how the treatment of disease can be improved with a precision medicine framework. We have interviewed twenty people in Sweden and Ireland about their healthcare systems, learned from physicians, and taught each other about the human body. We worked together to present about the differences between the Swedish and Irish healthcare systems and interpreted a patient case to determine a treatment plan for a patient with breast cancer. We synthesized information and imagined a different future for the medical field, where treatment is tailored and effective.

We have grown outside of the classroom as well. We completed the Howth Cliff Hike in nearly record time, explored the Jameson Whiskey Distillery, and watched traditional Irish dancing in a beautiful cathedral. We grew closer to one another and learned to work more effectively as a team. We shared fika and tried fish and chips. Most of all, we laughed and grew to love new places together.

Yet, the most impressionable lesson for me was not found in the classroom. Rather, it was making eye contact with a corpse at the National Museum of Ireland. He still had hair and skin and fingernails. The peat bog where he had died preserved him and his story.

Peat bogs are one of the most unique natural features in the world, and they happen to exist in both Sweden and Ireland. These bogs are created from decayed vegetation that absorb water from the surrounding wetlands. Due to the acidic conditions of the bogs, the decayed vegetation never fully decomposes. Rather, it turns into a substance called peat moss.

Peat moss is essential for biodiversity, carbon, and precipitation absorption. Yet, in the beginning, it served another, more sinister purpose. In Ireland, it is believed that the losing warlord of an area would be sacrificed in the bog. Alternatively, Swedish historians believe that the bogs were used to kill criminals. For whatever reason, hundreds of people lost their lives in the peat bogs like the man in the museum. Their bodies preserved by the acidity of the peat bog; their lives detailed through almost fully intact corpses.

The tragedy and beauty of this natural phenomenon reminds me of human health and disease. Precision medicine tries to replicate what peat bogs do perfectly, preserving life and narratives. For me, the most impactful part of precision medicine is not the genetic testing, biomarkers, or blood typing. Instead, it is the attention to detail and the commitment to finding the best care for every person. Too often, people with rare conditions or “incurable” diseases lose hope, but precision medicine offers a new path forward for an improved quality of life.

As I have learned about precision medicine, I have been taught to think like a peat bog: to consider nuances and preserve narratives. I am leaving this class with admiration for the passion of researchers, my peers, and the natural environment. I am leaving with new perspectives and hope for human-centered medical care. I am leaving with gratitude for the peat bogs and the stories they still have to tell.

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