Genes and Health
Is genetic testing good for health? Will gene therapy one day correct our faulty genes and eliminate disease? Some genetic tests can be useful, but genes are poor predictors of common diseases in most people. Read about the limitations of a genetic approach to our health problems.
Eric Lander (who played a key role in the Human Genome Project) has written an article in Nature which recognises that "there are likely to be fundamental limits on precise [genetic risk] prediction due to the complex architecture of common traits, including common variants of tiny effect, rare variants that cannot be fully enumerated and complex epistatic interactions, as well as many non-genetic factors". Lander also recognises that some of the missing heritability of common diseases and traits "may simply be an illusion": as GeneWatch has argued.
Read GeneWatch's history of the claims that everyone should have their genome sequenced to allow common diseases to be predicted and prevented. An article in Newsweek explains the latest scientific papers showing that genes are poor predictors of such diseases.
As more evidence accumulates, more scientists are questioning claims that genes play a central role in health and behaviour. Read the blog by Arto Annila and Keith Baverstock and visit the BioscienceResource Project.
For a discussion of policy issues around plans to sequence the genomes of whole populations, read the reports of the EU project PACITA on public health genomics here.
Widely reported claims in a 2010 that genes are highly predictive of longevity were implausible because they were based on too small a sample of people and neglected the overwhelming importance of environment in lifespan. Newsweek has now reported some technical problems with the study.
Clinical trial results show that genetic testing for drug response is of little use in deciding the dose of the blood thinning drug warfarin. Claims that these tests would benefit patients have been used to seek to justify plans to sequence everybody's genomes.
The Wall Street Journal has reported how screening for genetic disorders can cause problems, including anxiety and unnecessary treatment, for patients who have genetic mutations but no symptoms of disease.
Wallace HM (2009) Genetic Screening for Susceptibility to Disease.
A peer reviewed paper, summarising why genes give poor predictions of complex diseases. The link is to the abstract only. Contact us if you would like a copy of the full paper.
The Telegraph: Genetic 'magic bullet' cures have proven a 'false dawn' (21st April 2009)
GeneWatch PR: Twins study obesity claims irresponsible, says GeneWatch UK
7th February 2008
Scientific paper by GeneWatch's HM Wallace
This scientific paper looks at how data from twins and families is analysed. It concludes that the usual method is likely to exaggerate the importance of genetic differences in common diseases such as cancer. Breast cancer, for example, could often run in families because family members are exposed to the same environmental or lifestyle factors, rather than because relatives share some of their genes. If so, expensive research studies may be looking for "susceptibility genes" which do not exist or will be impossible to find.
Seminar: Nutrigenomics and the future of food
Scientists researching the links between genes, health and diet - the field of nutrigenomics - argue that this personalised approach could transform healthcare.
GeneWatch, in partnership with Demos and the Food Ethics Council, held a seminar to debate whether this was possible and desirable.
- External links
- Bioscience Resource Project: Human Genetic Predispositions
- PLoS Blogs: A Challenge to the Supremacy of DNA as the Genetic Material (20th March 2014)
- Caulfield et al (2014) A review of the key issues associated with the commercialization of biobanks
- PACITA project: future panel on public health genomics (February 2014)
- Eurogentest: Genetic Tests for Health Purposes (3rd December 2012)
- Press articles
- The Telegraph: Most cancers are caused by bad luck not genes or lifestyle, say scientists (1st January 2015)
- The Wall Street Journal: Genetic Testing Leaves More Patients Living in Limbo (20th November 2013)
- CounterPunch: Political Paralysis and the Genetics Agenda (8th August 2013)
- The Telegraph: Where is genetic testing taking us? (19th May 2013)
- Bloomberg: Faroes' 50,000 Residents Leap Into DNA Testing Quagmire (25th February 2013)
- BusinessWeek: Genome Sequencing's Affordable, and Frightful, Future (16th February 2012)
- PC Pro: You can't rewrite the human body like a computer program (8th February 2013)
- ScienceNews: Depression gene search disappoints (16th January 2013)
- Globe and Mail: We're overselling the health-care 'revolution' of personal genomics (14th December 2012)
- WNYC: Genome Sequencing For Babies Brings Knowledge And Conflicts (3rd December 2012)
- The Scientist: The Value of Your Genome (1st December 2012)
- The Telegraph: Genetic screening of unborn babies 'may be inaccurate' (9th June 2012)
The Times [subscription needed]: Gene 'revolution' has stalled, says Winston (9th June 2012)
IVF-pioneer Robert Winston described the hype about the human genome as "complete balls".
- BBC: Genome of 18-week-old foetus deciphered (7th June 2012)
- New York Times: Study Says DNA's Power to Predict Illness Is Limited (2nd April 2012)
- Associated Press: Gene mapping for everyone? Study says not so fast (2nd April 2012)
- Wall Street Journal: Study Questions Gene Mapping (2nd April 2012)
- GEN: Moving Clinical Genomics Beyond the Hype (15th January 2012)
- Huffington Post: Want to Lose Weight? Stop Looking For the Fat Gene (3rd January 2012)
- GenomeWeb: Broad-Led Analysis Suggests Genetic Interactions Could Account for Substantial Portion of 'Missing Heritability' (3rd January 2012)
- The Guardian: Mayo Clinic plans to sequence patients' genomes to personalise care (28th December 2011)
- AFP: 'Longevity gene' may be dead end: study (21st September 2011)
- Press Releases
- GeneWatch PR: New study exposes flawed claims of genome revolution 4th January 2012
- GeneWatch PR: Genomes for all: bad for health and the end of privacy 4th January 2010
- GeneWatch PR: Lords Committee likely to fail public on gene test regulation 6th July 2009
- GeneWatch PR: Regulation needed to prevent human genome from becoming massive marketing scam 29th October 2007
- GeneWatch PR: Diets tailored to your genes are false solution to disease, says new GeneWatch report. 16th May 2006
- GeneWatch PR: GeneWatch UK Welcomes New NHS Guideline for Familial Breast Cancer 23rd June 2004
- Your Diet Tailored to your Genes: Preventing Diseases or Misleading Marketing? 16th May 2006
- Genetic Testing in the Workplace 1st June 2003
- GeneWatch briefing: Examples of genes and common diseases (July 2009) 6th July 2009
- GeneWatch Q&A: Lords' Genomic Medicine Report 15th June 2009
- Briefing 35: Nutrigenomics: the future of nutrition? 1st March 2006
- Briefing 32: HUMAN CLONING AND STEM CELLS: unravelling the issues 2nd June 2005
- Briefing 28: Genetic Tests and Health 1st September 2004
- MPs' Briefing: Human Genetics No. 4: Human genetic testing and the influence of the pharmaceutical industry 1st September 2004
- Briefing 23: Pharmacogenetics: Better, Safer Medicines? 1st July 2003
- Briefing 18: Genetics and 'Predictive Medicine': Selling Pills, Ignoring Causes. 1st May 2002
- Briefing 14: Human Bio-Collections: Who Benefits from Gene Banking? 1st April 2001
- Consultation responses
- GeneWatch response to Nuffield consultation on Emerging Biotechnologies 21st June 2011
- GeneWatch UK submission to the HGC consultation on direct-to-consumer genetic testing (4th December 2009) 4th December 2009
- GeneWatch response to the Nuffield consultation on medical profiling (21st July 2009) 21st July 2009
- GeneWatch response to the consultation on the Medical Devices Directives 4th July 2008
- Submission to House of Lords 'Genomic Medicine' Inquiry 21st April 2008
- Consultation submission: "The influence of the pharmaceutical industry". 1st August 2004
- Response to Wanless review of public health 14th November 2003
- Response to the Wanless review of health trends 22nd January 2002