Curing most disease (including aging??) within ten years - For Real!
VERY interesting public lecture tonight at UCI (University of California, Irvine) by Eric Lander, one of the heads of the Human Genome Project. Lander outlined the future goals of the project, the basic methodologies, how long it will take, and how much it may cost - A LOT, but probably well worth it.
A case study he covered: turns out that there are two very distinct forms of leukemia that look exactly alike. The symptoms are the same. The microscopy is the same. One research doctor had a hunch that this was the case, however, and spent 40 years proving it, which was lucky, as the treatments that work with one type don't work at all with the other, and visa versa.
Now, with modern gene sequencers and DNA chips that can look at thousands of genes simultaneously and tell which ones are active, we can do the 40 years in a matter of minutes. But it took a LOT of research and technical infrastructure to get there.
One of the major goals that Landers outlined was to catalog all of the gene sequences specifically associated with all the major cancers. Another was to catalog the variations in human genes - about one difference per 3000 DNA base pairs, as it turns out, which is about half the difference between other chimpanzees (since actually we ARE chimpanzees, biologically), and one-eighth that of Orangutans. All humanity is descended from a group of about 10,000 humans in Africa about 3000 generations ago, BTW, and the level of variation is proof of this, as we know the rate of general mutation. There are about 12 million common genetic variations in the human genome, or less than 0.1% difference between individuals genetically.
Another major project which has now gotten the go-ahead from NIH is to sequence the genomes for some twenty additional mammals. Why? Because you can show statistically that then by comparing like sections of the DNA you can quickly isolate working genes. Sequencing the 20 other mammals will not take that long now, either - probably a year's work.
In the near future, we will have the option of having ourselves individually completely sequenced at a fairly low cost, so that we can take preventative or at worst preparatory steps in the case of genetically linked diseases, such as Alzheimers.
Lander did not rule out gene therapy - inserting good genes to replace defective ones - but said that present and projected technology gave it a limited role. Deliberate attempts at gene enhancement he did rule out for the present, as he said that we simply cannot do it safely with our current level of knowledge - altho certain cases, such as the gene that makes one immune to HIV, present in only about 1% of the population, might be an exception.
One interesting note that Lander mentioned to sell his program was the case of the FDA nearly preventing use of a drug that turns out to be virtually 100% effective in curing lung cancer - in 8% of the victims that have a particular genetic variant of it. But because the trials were done on a sample of some 1500 people who came from the general population, the signal was lost in the noise. It was only because of the persuasive testimony of doctors who reported miraculous cures of certain patients that the drug was allowed to go into use. However, the technology we now have would have made it possible to have tested it only on the susceptible victims.
This is the case with a LOT of drugs that have never made it to market, due to ignorance on the part of the FDA, which has been way behind the curve on this. There is enough variation in the genetic basis of disease, as Lander put it, that we should stop talking about most diseases on the basis of symptoms at all, and instead focus directly upon the genetic source. THEN we can conduct drug tests that actually make sense.
Bottom line: We have made the key breakthrough with mapping the complete human genome, similar to the periodic table of elements for chemistry. Now there is a huge amount of work to be done, but we already have so many success stories that the general course is obvious, and if we put the $ into it that is necessary (much less than we currently spend on NASA, I believe) then we can be reasonably confident that within ten years - twenty on the outside - most human diseases, including a lot of what we consider aging, will be old history of the 20th Century.
In all, a marvelously informative and inspiring presentation.