About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Massachusetts Moving | Main | Rimonabant, Out In the Light »

June 7, 2007

The Chamber of DNA Secrets

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

There are plenty of headlines today about the large Wellcome Trust-funded genomic study of common diseases. Unfortunately, most of those headlines are misleading. The ones that say "Genes Identified For Common Diseases" are the most common wrong ones, but any that include secrets, keys, new dawns, locks being opened, or mysteries being solved are also full of it. (You'll need to go to people who know what they're talking about for less sensational coverage - try the RSC, for one).

Not that this isn't a fine study, and a very interesting piece of work - far from it. This is just the kind of rigor and effort (14,000 patients, 3,000 controls) that's needed to trace out these sorts of connections. Contrary to popular belief, most genomic effects on disease are subtle and shifty, and tangled up throughly with both environment and with dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of other genetic markers. These folks are doing the right thing in the right way.

But the press, at least some of it, isn't. The genes identified in this study are not enough to tell you if you're going to get a particular disease or not, not by themselves. And they're not going to lead to therapies any time soon, either, because in many cases we have no idea how or why they're connected to the diseases in question. Nor do we have drug candidates that target the proteins that the genes code for, and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if most of them turn out to be un-druggable from the start with our current technology. I speak from sad experience on that issue, like many other folks in the drug industry.

That's not to say that we won't figure out how these things are involved in disease, or how to attack them therapeutically. But we didn't just open a locked chest full of the secret keys to health here - we found fragments of a map that'll tell us where to look for the clues to the pieces of an even bigger puzzle. It's the state of things, though, that this really is an advance, and it wouldn't hurt the public to know.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. drew on June 7, 2007 12:11 PM writes...

I think that the general public isnt aware, and even some molecular biologists often forget that DNA-->RNA-->sometimes makes protein. There can be RNA that feedback or forward to certain genes, proteins that are often transcription factors regulating hundreds of other processes, or genes that are up or downregulated as a result of certain disease conditions. I'm sure that 10 years from now we will look back and realize that a one gene/protein = one disease condition like cystic fibrosis is extremely rare and much more the exception rather than the rule. Its just much more sensational for the press to exclaim "genes discovered!" as if the system was so simple rather than headlines which read "stastical analysis of complex network of biological components show slightly elevated risk under certain conditions".

Permalink to Comment

2. Brian at on June 7, 2007 1:59 PM writes...

Yep, the titles should be more along the lines of, "Study finds lots of genes for other scientists to study," but that just doesn't make for good copy.

Permalink to Comment

3. Suicyte on June 7, 2007 4:24 PM writes...

I love your list of "secrets", "keys", "new dawns" and such. My all-time favourite is the omnipresent "cellular switch that determines whether somebody gets a disease".

Permalink to Comment

4. Eric Johnson on June 7, 2007 8:28 PM writes...

While I kind of dislike the idea of taxes funding a radio station (OK, I hate it in principle), I was pretty impressed by NPR's "Science Friday" last week. They had some boys on there to discuss some new cancer-associated loci they had recently discovered. The host went ahead and got quantitative on these fellas and they ended up confessing the relative risk conferred by their allele (reeeally low, like 1.2), and the rough percentage of the disease burden for which the allele might account (also pretty low).

That's better biology coverage than I'm used to from general media. I don't know how radio interviews work, though; perhaps guests have some prior input into the discussion sometimes, and maybe it was the scientists who suggested that quantitative line of discussion though in the interview itself it sounded like the host was the one steering things that way.

Permalink to Comment

5. rob cyran on June 8, 2007 8:38 AM writes...


I agree, NPR science coverage is second to none among mass media.

PS- I hope you sent in your membership after listening to that report - that way NPR doesn't have to depend on the govt.!

Permalink to Comment

6. bluebuns on June 9, 2007 10:09 AM writes...

i have to say i agree with derek and share your worry about this type of media coverage. but what about the other type of bad spin... when something comes up that deals with science, chemistry or pharma (in order of things getting closer to my heart), is uncovered by mainstream journalists and then is spun into sensationalism that paints a black mark on disciplines and businesses that do a great deal of good. i think the inaccracy of these distillates is more problematic.......


Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry