News & Views

Since the last time we ran this course – three months ago - we have been tracking the appearance of genomics in the news in order to assess how salient it is in the ever changing news cycle.

It has surprised even us how frequently genomics news stories appear. Almost daily we hear about the impact of genomics on healthcare and how gene-directed diagnosis and therapies are transforming our understanding of widely divergent fields of medicine. We thought we would share with you some of the stories we found particularly interesting. They exemplify the extent to which genomics is going to change everyone’s lives, whether as a patient or as a healthcare professional.

  • Genes and Ageing

    At the beginning of September, we heard that it is possible to predict a person’s age from their genes. A group from King’s College, London, led by James Timmons, analysed the activity of 150 key genes in two groups; sedentary 65 year olds and healthy 25 year olds. It identified marked differences in the genetic signatures between the two groups. The researchers suggest that a genetic signature could be used to predict the onset of dementia in an individual with few signs at assessment or determine the real age - and therefore transplant potential - for organs from an older individual who would not otherwise be considered a suitable donor. Read about the news story in full on the Telegraph website. The research was published in Genome Biology.

  • Gene editing: the new sat nav with scissors

    A revolutionary biological technique which can be used to edit the genome, called CRISPR, hit the headlines after Chinese scientists used this methodology to alter the genome in human embryos - a controversial move which is currently against the law in the UK. However, UK scientists have recently applied for a license to use this technology for research. Read more about CRISPR and the ethical issues genome editing raises in Step 4.19.

  • ”The sins of the father will be visited upon the son….”

    A recent study led by Rachel Yehuda from Mount Sinai Hospital and published in Biological Psychiatry suggested that the trauma experienced by Holocaust victims caused changes to the switches which turn genes on and off (the epigenome see step 1.17) which were passed on to their children. It was previously thought that only information in the genome (the DNA) is heritable whilst epigenetic alterations are not inherited. However, this new study adds weight to the evidence suggesting this is incorrect by showing that children of Holocaust victims, who are known to have an increased likelihood of stress disorders, frequently inherit an epigentic modification to a gene which regulates stress hormones: this contrasts with the control group consisting of Jewish immigrants, living outside Europe at the time of the second World War. Read about the news story in full on the Guardian website.

  • Mapping Ebola using genome sequencing

    Two independent groups reported in Cell and Nature on the spread of the Ebola virus in the recent outbreak that began in 2014. They sequenced the Ebola virus genomes and were able to show that the epidemic originated from a single virus introduction, most probably from a local animal reservoir such as bats. During the Ebola crisis over 27,000 people were infected and over 11,000 killed. At its peak, the mortality rate reached 39.4% and affected six different West-African countries. We will consider genomics and infectious disease in step 4.8. Read about the news story in full on the New York Times website.

  • Smoking, lung health and SNPs: why do some smokers develop lung disease whereas others remain healthy?

    We have all heard of someone who lived until the age of 90, was a heavy smoker and was apparently healthy until the day they died. Equally, there are the tragic cases of lifelong non-smokers who develop lung disease. A team, led by Professor Ian Hall from the University of Nottingham and Professor Martin Tobin at the University of Leicester, have come a step closer to understanding why some of us are more susceptible than others to developing lung disease, particularly emphysema and chronic bronchitis (together called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD). In their report, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine in September, they have identified (using Genome Wide Association Studies, GWAS, see step 3.16) a series of novel genomic variants which correlate with an increased risk of lung disease in those who have never smoked and other variants which have a protective effect in heavy smokers.

Talking Point:

Which of these stories interests you most and why? Have any other stories about genomics in the press caught your eye?

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This article is from the free online course:

The Genomics Era: the Future of Genetics in Medicine

St George's, University of London

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