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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.

  • Human and Neanderthal trysts and a modern susceptibility to allergies

    A research group in Germany have recently reported that the basis of modern man’s susceptibility to allergy may have its roots in the Neanderthal (or close cousins the Denisovans) genome, 40,000 years ago. The researchers have identified a cluster of three Toll-like receptor genes (TLR6-TLR1-TLR10) that are identified at increased frequency in individuals who are more prone to developing hay fever, asthma and eczema. They suggest that, as our ancestors left Africa tens of thousands of years ago, they encountered Neanderthals and Denisovans who had been established in Europe and Asia for over 200,000 years and who had adapted to their (infectious) environment.

The Toll-like receptors are believed to have conferred a selective immune advantage upon the indigenous population. When the migrating humans encountered and reproduced with Neanderthals/ Denisovans these Toll-like receptor genes were incorporated into the offspring genome. However, whilst they provided some protection against the pathogens inherent to Europe and Asia at that time, the Neanderthal genome has also left an allergic legacy experienced by humans thousands of years down the line.

  • 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. An application by UK scientists to use this technology in embryo research to try to better understand early human development and fertility has just been granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and has led to a wider debate in the UK about the ethics of this technology this article.

This technology also hit the broadsheets when Biotech company Editas Medicine announced plans to start human trials to genetically edit genes and reverse blindness in the genetic condition Leber Congenital Amaurosis, with the British newspaper, The Telegraph, emotively headlining their article “First-genetically-modified-humans-could-exist-within-two-years”.

Read more about CRISPR and the ethical issues genome editing raises in Step 4.19.

  • ”A product of your parents behaviour?!”

    Multiple studies now (controversially) suggest that environmental influences can be passed down through the generations by epigenetic modifications to our genetic code, including changes brought about by the lifestyle choices of our parents. Some journalists wondered about the moral and social ramifications of epigenetic research in pregnant animals, and the Guardian suggested that this might result in even more policing of what pregnant women eat and how they behave during their pregnancy.

Another study in Science suggested a father’s lifetime experiences can be transmitted to his offspring to affect health and development.

Read more about epigenetics in step 1.17.

  • 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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