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June 14, 2010
Looking Back at the Genome
The New York Times reminded its readers the other day about something that people in medical research have known for quite some time: the human genome has not exactly turned out to be an open book full of readily usable data about human diseases.
It does make a person cringe to go back and read the press releases and speeches that were made back when the genome was first announced. How about Bill Clinton's statement that the genome sequence would "revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases"? Or Francis Collins, predicting "a complete transformation in therapeutic medicine"? He's got about five more years on that one, but I'm not holding my breath.
As I've written here before, though, there was already a deep sense of nervousness among the people searching the sequences for disease clues - not to mention the nervousness among the people who had given them huge piles of money to do so. When the total estimated number of genes came out far lower than most people expected, there was a collective "Hmmm. . ." across the field. That number meant that the simpler possibilities for gene sequence-protein-disease linkage could already be ruled out - complicated things were clearly going on in transcription, translation, and further downstream.
That certainly doesn't mean that genomic sequencing has been a waste of time. It's been a tremendous boon, actually, because this complexity was out there waiting to be uncovered and understood. It's no one's fault that it hasn't led to speedy drug discovery; biology isn't set up for our convenience. And the further improvements that we've seen in sequencing speed and accuracy are going to be crucial if we're to have any chance of figuring out what's going on.
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