Moira Gunn - The new genomics and being human


Welcome to Biotech Nation, which our speaker Moira Gunn says is "all about you." And also this: "biotechnolgy is driving a third of the world's economy."

Her talk is entitled "the new genomics and being human."

"What about DNA is so interesting?" DNA in yourself literally carries the program of you; scientists have only known the structure since 1953. Stoned hippies were three blocks away from scientists leaning about gene splicing in San Francisco in the late 1960's.

Today Genentech is the biggest biotech firm of all, and has succeeded in inserting the genome into business discussions.

The Human Genome Project at the turn of the millennium began first mass study.

We have been decoded, but what does that mean? Three billion pairs of molecules, six billion DNA molecules store your genetic information - literally about 3Gb of information, enough, she says, to "fit comfortably in your iPod".

In 2001 the first complete genome was decoded. First whole personal genome was decoded in 2007. Many individuals genomes are currently being decoded.

Today, the first 100 whole personal genomes decoded in ten days for a minimal cost and with a minimum of errors will will the Genomic X-PRIZE.

Comparing the DNA from healthy tissue with cancerous tissue, science has been able to show that chemotherapy was being passed through cancer cells with almost no effect. No gene-related understanding of the nature of cancer has yet emerged, but strides are being made. A targeted gene therapy may eventually emerge, for example, to block genes expressed as breast cancer.

Today, some Cystic Fibrosis patients - unable to "clear the gunk" from their lungs - have been successfully given the genes that clear the junk. For others this hasn't helped. Unfortunately, gene expression is not fully understood for a variety of unknown reasons.   

Open questions:

Legally, what are the implications of bequeathing your DNA to your children?

Insurers cannot discriminate based on genetics, but we leave bits of our DNA all around us that a bit of sleuthing could recover.

Can a genetic drug be administered without a diagnostic? Can DNA be used to "normalize" a person, for example? Could a DNA advantage be conferred? There are clearly many ethical questions created by an understanding of the human genome, which means that a full understanding is still a long ways away.'

She concludes with a related thought. "I don't care what people think so long as they think" about the questions encountered in biotech nation.