Genes and knowledge

There's an article in the February 13th issue of Forbes about the Gene game. It's titled "The Giant Genome Fizzle". It's quite interesting and lots of that is due to this being my job area.

While I've often worked in less technical areas of bio research, right now I'm at the medical forefront by analysing genes for ties to angiogenesis and breast cancer. It's very interesting work--more so lately because we've had some very intriguing results on the angiogenesis side.

The Forbes article, however, is about how the field of Genomics has let us down. Their lead example is the hoopla that followed the discovery of MTP (Microsomal Transfer Protein) and it's vaunted link to longevity. A team of researchers at Harvard Medical School had determined in 2002 that this gene was linked to the incredible longevity that some people exhibit. Not surprisingly this finding was heralded in many magazines, news shows, and even Good Morning America. What wasn't touted was the data published in 2005 that there's no link between MTP and longevity. Ooops.

The article also goes on to discuss ACE (Angiotensin Converting Enzyme) and heart attacks, Xq28 Locus and male homosexuality, and BRCAI/BRCA2 and breast cancer. All these genetic factors have been considered strong determiners and have since been called into question. Of the 4, only BRCA2 is holding up though even with that gene there's some controversy.

The root behind these problems is the use of DNA Microarrays. While these are incredible tools for gene discovery--I use them all the time--they also make finding supposed links between diseases and genes too easy. Even detailed statistical analysis of the microarray data can allow red herrings to come through, particularly if you're using a homogenous population in your study. That's because certain genes might be rare in the general population but common in subpopulations.

If you find a lot of pancreatic cancer in a certain group of people, and they all have a certain gene, call it AA, you might quickly conclude that gene AA is causing pancreatic cancer. However it's possible that in this population gene AA is common and that everyone has it, pancreatic cancer or not. Since a researcher would typically just get samples of tumor, we often have no normal controls from the same population of people that the tumor came from.

Generally speaking, that doesn't happen a lot since populations move about so much there's not typically gene isolation of this kind. But in disease studies isolated populations are used frequently since they're easier to analyze and also diseases modalities occur more often therein. And it's just that isolation that can lead to false conclusions based on genetic data.

The Forbes article is right on target but it's not likely to change anything. Given the technology we have now, using microarrays to datamine genetic factors is the best game in town for trying to determine why we get the diseases that we do--and also other factors like aging or sexual preference.


Electric Short said…
this post seems very technical here from micheles..
Jean-Luc Picard said…
Wow! I'm no scientist!

Michele sent me here.
Maria said…
Thank you for posting this very interesting, and yes, technical information. As a lay person and a cancer survivor I found it interesting and I am so glad that you are working on this break-through. Research takes time and it must be difficult, at times exasperating, and trying work.

Came by way of Michele this time, but often visit on my own iniative.
ribbiticus said…
hi utenzi! never thought you were into this. boy, that's a lot of information to take in, but interesting nonetheless. btw, i like the new design (don't think i've mentioned it previously). so you ditched the dog, huh? :)
kenju said…
I find most of these genetic studies very interesting, Utenzi, even though there is a lot of it I don't understand (never took chemistry, etc.). When I started working in a hospital after grad. from Cytotechnology school, a doctor (Pathologist) in our hospital was just starting to study DNA. I used to look at some of his findings and think how cutting-edge they were (in 1965). I look back on that now and say how naive I was then!
Ditsy Chick said…
Wow, Utenzi that is some pretty neat stuff.

I think the research you do is very admirable.
That is truly fascinating. I hope your research pays off soon. We always knew you were one of the smart ones! Hope you are having a great weekend.
MissMeliss said…
Hi Utenzi. I'm back from a self-imposed hiatus and while I was planning to visit you anyway, I'm here via Michele today. Interesting article - picking apart genes is always fascinating, and I love the way you've presented the information.

(Like your new design, too.)
margalit said…
Interesting stuff you're working on. I'm in a mega Harvard study for the genetic components of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It used to be thought that there are two types, but from the genetic research there is a definate microgenic component and you can test for the gene now. My kids haven't yet been tested, but they will once they are 18 and can choose for themselves. Funny, but they just used this whole scenario on a TV show for HCM, One Tree Hill. Of course both sons had the gene, both are athletes, both are in high danger of their hearts stopping, but neither has a defibrillator implanted. Uh...nope.

Anyhow, I'd love to hear more about your work. My friend with BC just was genetically tested (positive) so her daughter needs to be tested. It so sucks.

Here via Michele today.
Viamarie said…
A very informative post. Will be back again.

Btw, Michele sent me.
archshrk said…
Hello, Michele sent me.
While this is not my area of expertise, it is exactly what a couple of my friends like to talk about. I think I'll send them your way.
kenju said…
Utenzi, thanks for the kind comments on my design competition. I answered your question in an edit.

P.S. I could never do that for a whole wedding, more like a bridesmaid's luncheon or a dinner for a guy to propose.
Michelle said…
Great stuff! Absolutely fascinating :)
kenju said…
See? I'm a woman of my word. Michele said I should come back - and I did!
Lisa said…
That's fascinating stuff! I'll have to go check out that full article. Its amazing considering how much we know about the human body, how much more we DON'T know.

Just happen to be sent here by Michele tonight!
Carmi said…
I must find this article. Reading it will be that much more meaningful knowing you're right on the leading edge.

This definitely gives us hope for a better future.
angela marie said…
I thought you explained this very well. I am active in genetic colon cancer issues. Not as a researcher, but as a 'client'. My family is riddled with HNPCC and I have been involved in a couple of studies, one to look at the gynecological aspect of HNPCC. I look forward to your insights.
Teresa said…
While I know that some studies yield accurate and definitely useful information -- and I love the order of research in general -- I'm always a bit skeptical about where the result came from and how it was determined. The latest breakthrough that I heard just last week stated that women who take aspirin daily have a very low occurance of breast cancer. Since my mother has taken aspirin every day for as long as I can remember (except for right before and after her surgeries), but has had two occurances of breast cancer, I find that hard to believe.

Then there's the information that flip-flops constantly, like the low-fat is good, no-fat is good, fat is necessary debate. It's overload. I think I'll ignore it all and just die when it turns out I've not heeded the correct studies.
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