IU professor unifies science and philosophy to study disease



The trouble with fighting diseases like cancer has less to do with finding a cure and more to do with anticipating the disease.

Amit Hagar, chair of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, said he thinks it could be more efficient to understand how to detect diseases and determine which patients would benefit from earlier testing.

Hagar works with experts in areas from philosophy to physics to epidemiology to understand how to optimize disease management. With data from humans and mice, Hagar uses probability to make procedures more patient-specific by taking into account individual features of a patient.

As an undergraduate, Hagar studied psychology, philosophy and cognitive science. He later completed a Ph.D. in the philosophy of physics.

“Philosophers ask a lot of questions,” Hagar said. “If there’s one thing that can characterize philosophers, it’s that they usually don’t give answers.”

While his early work on the philosophy of physics would guide experiments and research for decades to come, Hagar said he wanted to perform research in an area with a more immediate effect on society. He began to study disease management and prevention with a particular interest in cancer.

After getting married, Hagar witnessed how mammograms burdened patients with uncertain results and high costs.

Hagar said he wanted to improve cancer prevention by moving toward procedures based on individual features of patients rather than based on statistics of cancer averages.

Some people have breast cancers that grow quickly, which can be fatal if left untreated for too long. Other individual cases might grow more slowly, and numerous tests might be excessive.

On top of this, the medical community is still far from knowing exactly how cancer first develops. Biologists may study random mutations that are linked to cancer, but environmental and behavioral factors play significant roles as well.

In light of these issues, Hagar said he wondered what biological mechanism explains how people who exercise more often are less likely to get cancer.

With funding from the Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research, Hagar said he sought to answer this question.

With a background in multiple disciplines, Hagar said he wanted to create a unified study to improve screening and prediction of not only breast cancer but disease in general.

If it were true that exercise is related to disease progression, Hagar reasoned he would need to create a method for testing a disease model in mice and optimizing it for humans.

Hagar met James Glazier, director of the Biocomplexity Institute at IU, who was performing biophysical mechanical computations. Together, they used techniques from mathematics and computer science to devise a model that would show how exercise affects tumor progression.

Hagar works on this research with a variety of other professionals, including professor of environmental health James Klaunig, and emphasizes the collaboration of the study.

Hagar also works with Fadi Haddad, general surgeon at the IU Health Bloomington Hospital, and the local YMCA to run clinical trials and find a correlation between a patient’s amount of exercise and the growth rate of cancer 
tumors.

Josua Aponte-Serrano, a graduate student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, is an advisee of Hagar. Josua Aponte-Serrano may help with the mice research in the coming months.

Aponte-Serrano said Hagar is enthusiastic and “encourages his students to integrate philosophy with scientific problems.”

Hagar said he likes to plan things, know what his students are doing, orient them on the right path and encourage students to take a dynamic view on science and philosophy, Aponte-Serrano said.

Bringing together disciplines and looking at the big picture, Hagar said he “makes precision medicine really precise.”

As Hagar put it, “everyone wants to advance knowledge but not everyone has the same conception of what that means and how to get there.”

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