Today is National DNA Day, which commemorates the completion of the National Human Genome Mapping Project in April 2003. I wonder whether I will still be alive when someone makes a breakthrough discovery about how to use the genome map to improve/prolong human health. I think that I will, and I was encouraged by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). The article ( New Genetic Tools May Reveal Roots Of Everyday Ills, April 14, 2006, p. A1) explains that
“DNA is composed of repetitions of four chemical building blocks, which are known by the letters A, G, C and T. The full human genome consists of a combination of three billion letters and the code is nearly identical among any two people. However, about 0.1% of the letters commonly vary. Those variations are believed to lie behind many of the differences amongst people — what they look like and how vulnerable they are to particular diseases. “The gene variants are called “snips,” shorthand for single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. A few years after Dr. Risch’s 1996 article, government and industry launched a major effort to catalog them. It turned out to be costly and slow. In the most recent phase of the effort, the U.S. government, along with China, Japan and other nations, spent nearly $139 million cataloging how more than one million SNPs varied among several groups, including residents of Nigeria, Tokyo and Beijing, and Americans of European background. “The next step is to compare SNPs from hundreds or thousands of sick individuals with those from healthy people. That will theoretically allow scientists to zero in on genes that underlie disease.”Until recently, this comparison has been a very expensive process but according to the Journal last year two U.S. companies “Affymetrix Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Illumina Inc. of San Diego” each introduced miniature chips that can detect more than 300,000 genetic markers, or SNPs, at once. This development “has spurred a frenzy of” genetic research activity. “The Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Mass., is tackling genetic research that “five years ago you couldn’t do…for $10 billion,” says David Altshuler, a geneticist there.”
The purpose of DNA Day is to encourage young scientists to tackle this project. If there’s any magic bullet for our health care cost problems, this may be it. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and keep rooting for the scientists.