Archive for January 2nd, 2011

Genomics: a disappointment or has it just begun?

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011 by Roberto Saracco

The last decade, for many, has been the decade of Genomics: in June 2000 Clinton at the White House announced the decoding of the Human Genome by the Human Genome Project and by Craig Venter. Actually, the decoding was not complete and it would be more appropriate to flag its completion in 2001, 10 years ago. Anyhow, what has happened in these ten years? Technology Review is dedicating this month issue to examine the status of Genomics and its unfulfilled promises. It is a good reading, don’t miss it:

http://www.technologyreview.com/article/26943/

My impression from reading the various articles is that we (as scientific community) have been riding too much the enthusiasm of the press rather than the hard facts of the labs. The truth, probably, is that genomics is indeed a Pandora box but we have just take out the lid and cat a glimpse inside the vase. We saw a lot, but we understood just a little. Actually, these ten years of discovery have unearthed more questions than answers.

Chromosome with its telomeres (in red)

Chromosome with its telomeres (in red)

We have been too quick to dismiss large portions of the DNA as useless junk, remnant of evolution missteps. We are now starting to appreciate that there may be some important message hidden in those portion of the code. Just recently we have discover the role of telomeres, the terminating portion of each branch of a chromosome, a 2000 fold repetition of  the:

5′…TTAGGG TTAGGG TTAGGG TTAGGG TTAGGG TTAGGG..3′
3′…AATCCC AATCCC AATCCC AATCCC AATCCC AATCCC..5

string and their relation to the length of our life.

Just a months ago a researcher at the Harvard University announced that by using an enzyme to lengthen telomeres of a mice has set back the clock of age, rejuvenating that mouse. He also cautioned that it may take a lot more understanding and experiment before trying the same thing on humans. Still, amazing!

In these ten years we made a lot of discoveries, identifying as many as 3,000 genes aberration that cause diseases and linked over 200 genes to cancer. This has lead to the development of more specific treatment to cure some diseases (people having a certain gene are more sensitive to certain drugs..). However, we have also recognized that the story written in the DNA is much more complex that we believed ten years ago.

Hence, if the last decade was full with hopes and disillusionment this one have smaller hopes but is going to bring more concrete results.

From  telecommunications point of view…well what does it have to do with telecommunications? Indeed, telecommunications will be an important component of the success story of genomics in this decade.

Technology evolution has brought the cost of decoding down to 1,000$ (and the time required down to a few days). In this decade the cost will go below 100$ and the time needed for it down to a few hours. By the end of this decade I can imagine that our sanitary card will contain the decoding of our genome (which will also reside in our clinical record, in the cloud). Our doctor will use that information (with the help of a lot of processing provided by the cloud) to better understand what is going on and to prescribe the right medicine, just for us. That will require some sort of continuous monitoring; sensors on our body will take care of getting the raw biological data and the communications network will direct those data to monitoring centres. By the end of this decade I believe that telecommunications will be at the core of preventive medicine and will be as important as any medical exams to our health.

I’ll be back in ten years time to double check my forecast.