The description of the human genome was a great advance for science. Identifying the 3.0 billion base pairs that make up the genome is no mean feat: compared with Japan’s Paris japonica flower (the largest genome identified so far), which boasts 152.23 billion base pairs, it is quite small. Size makes this discovery important, as does the promise of a new dimension of understanding the human body and the potential for medical advances.
The problem is, closer examination of these exciting new genes and their capacity to cure reveals each genetic discovery is a long way from becoming an effective treatment.
Rather than postulating how it may work to eradicate individual diseases we should be integrating our scientific thinking into bodily systems.
Associating particular genes with particular diseases is commonplace. Our genetic footprint can now tell a lot about the likelihood of any one of us acquiring a range of diseases including cancer, heart disease or diabetes. It can also tell which treatments are more likely to work, especially in cancer.
However, we are still only dealing with probabilities.
Identifying genes is the first step. And rather than postulating how it may work to eradicate individual diseases – as though they are separate from the bodies they inhabit – we should be integrating our scientific thinking into bodily systems.
Genes may be procreators but they are not workers. It is up to the proteins made by our cells, and there are a lot of them, to do the work of living. At last count the Protein Databank in Europe identified over 100,000 proteins with 200 new ones discovered every week.
Beyond proteins and the study of them (proteinomics) there remain many more pieces to the living puzzle waiting to be described – other “omics” are emerging as important byproducts of reactions (metabolomics) and reactions involving energy storage and transfer (glycomics and lipidomics).
Aggregations of proteins are important processes in the development of many diseases including diabetes, Alzheimers and Parkinsons, but describing the parts doesn’t explain the workings and how the different functions interact over time.
Understanding how billions of parts operate within a cell, let alone within the body will require a concerted scientific effort and a new kind of science that integrates what we find with how it works. Enormous datasets will have to be developed. Intelligent programming will be required to link collected data. Clinical relevance throughout the process will need to be maintained.
This is not the work of one country nor a single industry, nor even one group of researchers. It will require a worldwide commitment to our future – just as the genome project did. With this kind of effort likelihood in medicine can become a certainty.