Archive for May, 2011

Genomic Test for your Kid’s Sports Ability? Oh, Please!

Friday, May 27th, 2011

The US FDA just sent out more letters to genomic testing firms asking them to explain why their testing kits should not be regulated.  The companies in question (and their target market) were Lumigenix (disease predisposition), American International Biotechnology Services (AIBiotech, workout optimization for athletes and also disease predisposition), and Precision Quality DNA (PQDNA, disease predisposition and drug response).

Based on the blogosphere reaction, the testing of genomic influences on athletic performance drew the most attention.  I don’t know much about genetic influences on athletic performance, but I don’t think anyone else does either.  Hence the reaction to such a product—is there really any value there?  I already have to submit a copy of my son’s birth certificate to enter him in certain sports tournaments.  Am I also going to have to submit his genetic profile so he can join AYSO?

For all three it appears to me that the FDA was pretty reasonable in exercising its mandate to protect the public health by blocking unreasonable medical claims for products.  It’s unfortunate for those companies that are trying to do the right thing by backing up their genetic testing services with real data; they may well have to carry the burden of federal regulation soon.

 

Failure of the Genome?

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

I recently read an article written by Jonathan Latham in the Guardian (UK) online with the title, “Failure of the Genome” (credit to Genome Web for pointing the post out to their readers).  Following the eye-grabbing headline, the article goes on to posit that the Human Genome Project has not turned up much of use.  Indeed, the author asserts that there is scant evidence supporting the genetic underpinnings of disease paradigm.  To a geneticist or one of the many others who have backed the various genome projects, this is provocative indeed.

So, why did this provocative headline catch my eye?  I have to admit, I am one of those who have become weary of seeing the “Gene For…” headlines ad nauseum over the last couple of decades, only to see those claims vanish into the twilight of yesterday’s news time and again.

The magically vanishing claims of genetic causation that show up daily certainly have jaded even a dedicated molecular biologist like me* to an extent.  As such, I can understand how this pattern of hype of research results followed by disillusion when the claims quietly die would dishearten others who see these stories.

So, maybe what grabbed me was the sense that we, as a society, have swallowed the genetic-cause-of-disease hype hook, line, and sinker—and this article is evidence of rising discontent the emptiness of those hyped promises that come in company and university press releases.  The real story about genes and disease is more complicated than will fit in the easy to digest news bits that are our common food in these information-intense times.

I hope that we scientists will recognize this backsplash as a signal to examine how we communicate our science.  What I most value in the scientific enterprise are the truthfulness and credibility that are a part of this culture.  I hope we will work to preserve these qualities.

 

*I come to this as a molecular biologist with a couple of decades of experience doing research in oncology, in particular, the role of oncogenes in the development and progression of cancer.  Based on my own hands-on experience in trying to understand the role of genes in a disease, I’d be hard pressed to simply dismiss genetic variation as a factor is disease causation, as Mr. Latham does.  It is pretty clear to me that variation in genetic makeup leads to variation in phenotype, some of those phenotypes being what we call “disease”.