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June 7, 2007
The Chamber of DNA Secrets
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.
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