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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.

  • The end of sex!

Many British papers chose to explore the impact that future developments in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis might have on the human sex life with attention grabbing headlines including:

“Brave new world of designer babies will put an end to sex”

And

“Sex will be made unnecessary by ‘designer babies’, professor says”

These articles discussed a future where all babies are made in the lab by taking skin cells from the female and turning them into viable eggs, and undertaking pre-implantation screening of embryos to select against genetic disease. Do you think this is a likely possibility? Do you believe this heralds the end of sex for humankind? We discuss the science and ethics surrounding these issues in Week 5.

  • The mutant humans who defy genetic disease

A large study published in April 2016 has identified 13 individuals who carry mutations in genes which cause severe genetic disease in other patients - but do not seem to affect them according to self-reported health questionnaires. The findings may indicate that the clinical presentation of even “classical” genetic conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, may be more complex than we thought and potentially influenced by as yet unknown genetic factors. The researchers hope that finding people resistant to these genetics diseases might open up new treatment avenues for patients.

Read about the news story in full on the Guardian website. The research was published in Nature.

  • 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. A second Chinese group have used the technology to attempt to make a human embryo resistant to HIV infection.

In the UK, the Human and Embryology Authority have granted a licence to edit genes in early embryos to study early-development.

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”

This technology has the capacity to transform scientific and medical research - but what are the ethical implications? 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 this Guardian article 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.

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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