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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Personalized Gene Research Slow

The New York Times has an interesting article concerning two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine that discuss the issues scientists are facing as they attempt to make use of the decoded human genome.  Nicholas Wade writes,

The era of personal genomic medicine may have to wait. The genetic analysis of common disease is turning out to be a lot more complex than expected.  Since the human genome was decoded in 2003, researchers have been developing a powerful method for comparing the genomes of patients and healthy people, with the hope of pinpointing the DNA changes responsible for common diseases.

This method, called a genomewide association study, has proved technically successful despite many skeptics’ initial doubts. But it has been disappointing in that the kind of genetic variation it detects has turned out to explain surprisingly little of the genetic links to most diseases.  A set of commentaries in this week’s issue of The New England Journal of Medicine appears to be the first public attempt by scientists to make sense of this puzzling result.

One issue of debate among researchers is whether, despite the prospect of diminishing returns, to continue with the genomewide studies, which cost many millions of dollars apiece, or switch to a new approach like decoding the entire genomes of individual patients.  The unexpected impasse also affects companies that offer personal genomic information and that had assumed they could inform customers of their genetic risk for common diseases, based on researchers’ discoveries.

These companies are probably not performing any useful service at present, said David B. Goldstein, a Duke University geneticist who wrote one of the commentaries appearing in the journal.  “With only a few exceptions, what the genomics companies are doing right now is recreational genomics,” Dr. Goldstein said in an interview. “The information has little or in many cases no clinical relevance.” . . .

The problem addressed in the commentaries is that these diseases were expected to be promoted by genetic variations that are common in the population. More than 100 genomewide association studies, often involving thousands of patients in several countries, have now been completed for many diseases, and some common variants have been found. But in almost all cases they carry only a modest risk for the disease. Most of the genetic link to disease remains unexplained. . . .  

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