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Human Genome Project ten years on: Breakthrough or hype?

21 February 2011
Appeared in BioNews 596

An article published by a group of international scientists has said an over emphasis on the Human Genome Project (HGP) may risk a 'backlash' in the field of genetics and has called for an evaluation of where the 'real benefits' from genomic medicine will come from.

Writing ten years after the human genome sequence was published, the scientists suggest that partly due to the complexity and cost of research the HGP had not yet lived up to expectations.

'The predictive value of so much of this genetic risk information is really quite low. It has proven to be far more complex and far more nuanced than imagined', said co-author of the article Professor Timothy Caulfield, director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, Canada.

The authors do note that since the release of the human genome sequence, medical advances have been made and decoding the genome has led to the improved application of specific cancer therapies.

However results of this nature, where the identification of new genetic mutations has led to changes in clinical treatment, have been relatively few compared to initial expectations. As Professor Evans of the University of North Carolina, one of the authors of the article, points out: 'Common diseases have many causes and genetics is only one factor'.

'Our argument is that we are not doing the field of genetics any favours if we unrealistically hype its promise', said Professor Evans. 'Indeed, by doing so, we risk a backlash that will set the field back'.

Although the HGP may not have yet fulfilled its potential in revolutionising medicine, it has shed light on the disease process. The authors write: 'The true promise of genomics is to help lay bare the mechanisms of human disease... Genome-wide association studies are illuminating loci that contribute to common disease, and novel drug targets are being identified that will ultimately lead to new therapies. But the timeline for translation of such discoveries will be long'.

The article was published in the journal Science.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Deflating the Genomic Bubble
Science |  18 February 2011
The human genome project, 10 years in: Did they oversell the revolution?
Globe and Mail |  17 February 2011
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