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.

  • Burgers and Behaviour

Healthy and unhealthy food for pregnancy

A recent study by Dr Edward Barker of King’s College London, suggests a possible association between ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and a mother’s diet in pregnancy. The team analysed data from 184 children (83 children with ADHD or early onset conduct disorder and 81 children with low levels of early conduct disorder) and their mothers who had contributed to the “Children of the 90’s” project. In particular, they evaluated the types of food mothers ate during pregnancy in combination with blood samples taken from children at birth and at the age of 7 years. They showed that ADHD and early conduct disorders were more common in children exposed to a high-fat high-sugar diet prenatally and were associated with higher levels of methylation of the gene IGF2. However, the study group also pointed out that this association does not mean that all children exposed to this diet will develop behavioural issues nor that all children with ADHD have been exposed to high-sugar / fat diets prenatally. The study findings are reported in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

  • Genetic variation and an increased risk of depression

Scientists have discovered 17 genetic variants, in 15 genomic regions, which increase the chances that an individual will develop depression. A team from Massachusetts general hospital have been studying DNA data from 300,000 individuals of European ancestry (including 75,607 individuals who self-reported some symptoms of depression and 231,747 who had never been affected), collected primarily through the commercial genetic testing company 23andme. This is the first time that genetic variants, linked to depression, have been identified in individuals of European ancestry. Although this study, reported in Nature Genetics, points us towards the biology of depression, the team do emphasise that these variants will only contribute a small proportion of risk and the variants will not be able to be used as a diagnostic or predictive test.

  • Gene Drives – Awesome or Alarming? Both probably…

Over the last few months, an exciting new technology known as the ‘Gene Drive’ has been hitting the headlines. Gene drives are molecular tools that harness the power of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system to create a self-perpetuating gene editing tool: the machinery automatically ‘copies and pastes’ the chosen gene into both chromosomes in the germline cells, thereby ensuring that all the descendants inherit the chosen gene – in effect bypassing the normal rules of Mendelian genetics.

The gene drive was developed and published by researchers at the University of California. They, in collaboration with colleagues working on a malaria resistant mosquito, believe that their technology could have the potential to eradicate malaria by driving genes conferring malaria-resistance through the mosquito population.

This could be an immensely powerful tool to drive radical genetic change at the species level in rapidly reproducing populations, over a short time frame. Understandably this power raises serious concerns. There is a potential for irreversible mistakes or abuse in environmental, commercial and military contexts.

For an excellent and balanced summary of the issues, watch science journalist Jennifer Kahn’s TED talk ‘Gene editing can now change entire species – forever’.

  • Love at First Spit?

Heart icon with a dna sign

Chemistry. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Many of us will have experienced the frustration of the ‘good on paper’ date who failed to light our fire. But would you trust this judgement to ‘science’ rather than instinct?

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing company ‘Instant Chemistry’ would like you to put your love life in their hands (or test tube). When you receive your ‘relationship kit’, you and your partner each spit into a tube which is then sent back to the company for analysis.

They then look at a variety of genetic markers such as the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) genes, and other variants that they claim impact on your emotional and behavioural profile. This is then combined with the results from your answers to their ‘psychological test’ and out pops your ‘percentage compatibility’. And all for only US$199.

Sounds dubious? Almost certainly so. But if you want to find out what happened when Guardian journalist Meghan Nesmith put her relationship to the test, then read on…

Swapping spit: what saliva can reveal about your romantic relationship - The Guardian, 26th May 2016

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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