A Step Closer to the Great “Gene” Sale?

Opinion.jpgThe Human Genome Project completed nearly 7 years ago may have been a slight disappointment for the “genetic technology” industry, as far fewer genes that we once thought exist on the human chromosome. Worse, this implies that there are possibly far fewer single gene disorders than we once thought, and hence the market for single gene therapy appears to be quite “limited.”

Enter Human Genetic Variation – dubbed by Science magazine as the Breakthrough of the Year 2007. In essence, instead of looking for associations between family members for certain inherited disorders, this technology uses cheap and fast DNA sequencing across large populations along with computing of such data to find patterns of genetic codes. NIH Genetic Research Director Francis Collins explains in a video interview that this represents a new approach to find genes for common diseases like arthritis, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease.

However, blame me for reading between the lines, but I detect the seedlings of a new spawning industry here. Much of the 80’s and 90’s saw the genetics industry tout gene therapy as the “cure” for cancer. It was a disastrous failure, and in many instances gene therapy was so toxic that it had to be withdrawn. The problem was that at the stage when cancer was diagnosed, the genetic patterns of cancerous cells were so deranged, anti-gene therapy did not have much of a chance to do anything. It was the ‘optimistic’ application of a technology that we did not even understand.

With genetic variation, are we moving closer to the era of “designer” genes, where you can swap your diabetes genes or buy some genes for blond hair, introduced through a vector? Well some will argue that understanding the genetics of disease leads us closer to a “genetic” cure, but I personally doubt it. Its understanding the gene-environment interactions which are more important to attempt to try and prevent disorders from progressing in the first place where we are most likely to be successful. We have known the genetic defects behind Down’s syndrome, phenylketonuria (PKU) for quite a while, but we are not remotely close to a “genetic cure.” It is still technically impossible to change our genes. But I can bet that even unproven technology e.g. a gene therapy shot for male pattern baldness with the warning label ‘not likely to work’ will still sell if marketed properly.

And leaving aside worries of genetic discrimination aside, I think that the biggest fear is that of unethical commercialization, in the name of progress. It will be a sad day for humanity when our genes will be put up for sale.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
See All Posts By The Author