Sun, Dec 01, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Where will genetic knowledge lead us?

The language of DNA uses only the letters G, C, A and T, but the book written in this language will have an enormous impact on our future

By Leroy Hood

For example, if you are a woman with a single bad copy of the breast cancer 1 gene, you have a 70 percent chance of getting breast cancer by the time you are 60 years old. Why only a 70 percent chance? In some cases, defective genes require certain environmental signals to be activated, while another, more likely, explanation is that single defective genes are not enough to cause disease; a number of defective genes must act in concert.

The important point is that within the next 10-15 years we will have identified hundreds of genes that predispose individuals to virtually all of the common, late-onset diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular, neurological and metabolic diseases. We will be able to take a blood sample, determine the possibility of genetic defects, and create a probabilistic health history of what is likely to happen. Physicians will be able to study your genes in the context of the biological systems within which they operate and learn how to circumvent the limitations they impose.

The predictive, preventive and personalized medicine of the future could include changes in environment, specially designed drugs, gene engineering and embryonic stem cells. All of this will propel us into a very different world, one that may well extend humans' life span by 10-30 years, presenting enormous opportunities, but also confronting us with fascinating and perplexing ethical, social and legal issues.

How, for example, can we capture the enormous potential increase in creativity and productivity if the average human life span is extended into the 90s or even beyond? Who gets to know about predictive health histories? Will we permit doctrinaire religious views to block our ability to explore the enormous potential of embryonic stem cells and thereby lift the yoke of disease from tens of millions of people? These questions underscore our obligation to keep abreast of advances in science and technology, so that we may use the opportunities they provide to better humankind while dealing thoughtfully and rationally with the challenges they present.

Leroy Hood is resident and cofounder of the Institute for Systems Biology, a private nonprofit research institute in Seattle, Washington. One of the pioneers in the Human Genome Project and automated DNA sequencer developer, he won the 2002 Kyoto Prize in advanced technologies.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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