30 November 2009
ByAppeared in BioNews 536
As Genetics Editor of BioNews, it has been particularly rewarding to report on the huge progress made over the past ten years in human genetics. I've researched, edited and written stories on the completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Project, the 'HapMap' catalogue of human genetic variation, promising developments in gene therapy, discoveries of genetic influences on common diseases, intriguing epigenetics research, and new DNA sequencing technologies that promise to usher in an era of 'personalised' medicine - to name just a few. But as someone who originally trained as a research scientist, one of the most interesting aspects of writing for BioNews has been gaining an insight into how society deals with the new knowledge that scientists uncover.
Looking back at some of the genetic stories in the news when I first started (the entire BioNews archive is freely available on our recently revamped website, http://www.bionews.org.uk/), a couple from issue 45 (14 February 2000) caught my eye:
'Iceland genetics firm to float on stock market' - a story about deCODE genetics, the research firm granted access to the medical records, family trees and genetic information of all of Iceland's 270,000 inhabitants. 'deCODE is going to go like a bomb. It would not surprise me to see its value reach $2 billion or more,' said one industry expert at the time. The company used the country's unique genetic heritage in a hugely successful - if controversial - project to uncover many new genetic variations that influence the risk of common conditions such as diabetes. But last week came the news that deCODE has filed for bankruptcy, prompting media comment that while searches for such gene variants have proved fruitful in terms of shedding new light on disease processes, not enough is yet known for this knowledge to be marketed in the form of useful predictive tests.
Although there is still much to discover about the way in which genes interact with each and non-genetic factors such as diet, lifestyle, and prenatal exposures in the womb, the day may eventually come when for some diseases at least, it will be possible to identify those people most at risk. Whilst such knowledge will undoubtedly lead to new ways of preventing and treating illness, it also raises the spectre of possible 'genetic discrimination', an issue that different countries are tackling in a variety of ways. This process started several years ago - another story from BioNews issue 45 was 'Clinton seeks ban on genetic discrimination', reporting on an order signed by the then US President Bill Clinton, who said that 'my goal is to set an example and pose a challenge for every employer in America because I believe no employer should ever review your genetics records along with your resume'. It took a while, but the US Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act 2008 (GINA) eventually came into force two weeks ago.
BioNews has followed all these issues and many more, and will continue to do so, in the experienced and extremely capable hands of Reproduction Editor Dr Kirsty Horsey and new Genetics Editor Ailsa Stevens. We also welcome new Science Editor Dr Vivienne Raper to the team, who has a wealth of editorial and science writing experience. With your support, we hope that BioNews will continue to provide weekly news, comment and reviews in these important areas of science for many years to come.
Dr Jess Buxton is Contributing Editor at BioNews and a Trustee at the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is co-author of The Rough Guide to Genes and Cloning (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK).