13 April 2004
ByAppeared in BioNews 253
A year after the unveiling of the completed human genome sequence, geneticists gathered to discuss key areas of 'post-genome' research. The annual meeting of the Human Genome Organisation was held last week in Berlin, Germany.
The conference opened with a reminder of the gaps that remain in our understanding of our genetic make-up, the Scientist magazine reported. US geneticist Maynard Olson said that scientists should focus on how non-disease traits such as hair colour, weight, height and handedness are inherited, saying it was striking how little was known about these obvious human differences. 'It has been ignored partly because of the complexity of the issue, the difficulty of getting funds for non-medical research and the long shadow of eugenics', he said. But he stressed that studying non-disease traits was 'essential to human genomics', adding that mainstream science needs to focus on them, rather than 'rogue elements'.
Italian researchers announced at the meeting that a large new study aiming to identify the genes involved in healthy ageing will begin soon, reported BBC News Online. Professor Claudio Franceschi and colleagues will look at DNA samples taken from 3,000 90-year old siblings, to try and identify genetic variations and non-genetic factors linked to old age. The Genetics of Healthy Ageing study, based at the Italian National Research Centre on Ageing, will hopefully shed light on the ageing process, and could also help develop new medicines to treat diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes.
Plans for a large-scale worldwide study of genes linked to mood disorders were also revealed at the meeting. The project, called NEWMOOD, aims to help develop new medicines to tackle depression - which haven't changed much for the past 40 years, says team leader Bill Deakin of the University of Manchester in the UK. Most anti-depressant drugs currently available work by boosting levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, he told the journal Nature, but this treatment can take weeks to work. 'We have to find new molecules that are involved in depression so that new treatments can be developed', he said. The NEWMOOD study will look at genes that trigger depression in humans, mice and rats, some of which are thought to affect the way in which individuals react to stressful and upsetting events.
Studying the genomes of other species looks set to remain a key tool for researchers aiming to understand the function of the 25-30,000 genes that make up the human genome. A final draft and analysis of the chimp genome should be available this summer, Svante Paabo, of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, told the meeting. The DNA sequence of our closest relative is already throwing up interesting findings, the Scientist magazine reports, including differences between the genes switched on in several regions of the chimp and human brains.