Monday, February 21, 2011

The Future of Genomics and You

From Nature Feb. 2011
Someday in the future, it may be standard procedure for a human's genome to be mapped right after birth.  Each person may be provided with a genetic information card (like a credit card).  This can act as a method of identification and could potentially revolutionize pharmaceuticals.  Provided with your genome, a pharmacy may be able to alter a drug so it is taylor-made for you.  This could eliminate side effects and increase effectiveness of medicine.

The scenario presented above is just a snap-shot of where some scientists believe genomics will take us in the future, although we may never see this in our lifetimes.  A recent article in the journal Nature entitled "Charting a course for genomic medicine from base pairs to bedside" by Green & Guyer outlined their take on the future of and associated challenges that genomics will face.

The field of genomics has been one of the fastest growing in science in the last few decades.  Many species' genomes have been mapped, and links have been found between many diseases and genetic coding.  The current technology is improving, but costs too much and can take too much time to catalog a given specimen's genome. 

The article states the focus of genomics is to understand human biology and the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of human disease (genomics in agriculture are outside the scope of their work).  A great opportunity that arises is the ability to treat a disease without a thorough understanding of it.  For example, different cancer therapies may be selected based on the genomic profile of the tumor in question, without a full understand of how the tumor works.  To gain the full benefits that genomics will someday provide, Green & Guyer believe the next step must be the genome cataloging of tens (even hundreds) of thousands of different people.  With this, diseases may be correlated to genetic variations in humans that either create the disease or make the human more susceptible to the disease.

The largest step in creating this huge database of human genomes is the development of cheaper and faster equipment.  Once a genome can be analyzed quickly and economically, the amount of genetic information available will skyrocket.  Legal issues will be associated with the availability of this personal information, but they probably will be handled in a similar fashion as medical records are handled today.

In sum, a community effort is needed to make technology better and to create a large database of genetic information.  Once available, individual scientists will be able to take this information and pursue hypothesis-driven research to advance the field of medicine and better the health of millions.


  1. What would I have to give to help this research? Are they looking for blood samples from people to help with this genetic research or is this just something that takes time?

  2. Currently this large database of genetic information is more of an idea or goal. Scientists today are carrying out research more on an individual level. A day might come where they call for volunteers to donate their DNA for sequencing. If this happens, blood samples would work, but I believe hair and skin samples would work just as well.

    Maybe I'll do a post on how exactly DNA is sampled and sequenced.

  3. An ethical question that could arise from this is whether we should be told about some diseases that we might get. I don't know if I would want to know that I will eventually get Alzheimer's or MS. I agree that this would be an awesome technology to implement but it could begin a problem with psychological issues and choices that we would have to make about what to know about our futures.

  4. Great point, Michelle. I came across that in some literature; scientists will definitely be able to tell if someone is more susceptible to disease by looking at their genome. I suppose it would be the patient's choice to know or not.

    What's good is that knowing ahead of time about potential diseases may help to prevent them. Unfortunately there is no known cure or way to prevent Alzheimer's or MS, but maybe someday there will be.

  5. Michelle's thinking was right in line with my own. I'm also worried about social stratification or penalties. Insurance companies have historically been able to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions (tho that may be reversed under Obamacare). Couldn't insurance companies charge certain individuals exorbitant rates if they are going to be sicker than others? And couldn't certain "diseased" individuals be isolated or discriminated against from a young age? I find this development really disturbing.

    You must get tired of me always being "disturbed" by genomics :).

  6. It can be a disturbing topic indeed, makes for good blog posts :).

    Your comment about insurance companies is legitimate and certainly disturbing. Instead of pre-existing conditions, there will be something like pre-susceptibility conditions! "You don't have MS right NOW but you may in the future, so your insurance rates are going to be higher."