Cracking The Genetic Code
The festival’s second Thomson Reuters Knowledge Exchange event was titled “Cracking the Genetic Code,” and featured an excellent panel. Moderated by Chris Kibarian, president of our IP & Science business, the panel included Harvard professor John Quackenbush, Brian Fiske of the The Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Paul Rejto from Pfizer. The three panelists each brought a unique perspective to the discussion, and their varied expertise helped to turn complicated subject matter into something very easy to understand and enjoy.
The conversation started and revolved around the human genome, and the project to determine the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA, as well as identifying the function of human genes. Professor Quackenbush almost poetically explained complicated scientific information so that it was easily comprehensible. He talked about the roadmap of the human genome and the new technologies that have contributed to the decreasing costs of identifying genes. He talked about a time in the very near future where the cost would become so low that we’d be able to generate huge amounts of data in an economically responsible manner. This data would then contribute to a better understanding about genetic factors contributing to risk of developing diseases and being able to develop more personalized care for serious illnesses.
Fisk and Rejto complemented Quackenbush’s explanation of DNA with examples from their specific fields. With so much uncertainty around the origins of Parkinson’s disease, the data available from mapping the human genome would provide much more information, but would also allow more access to people with the disease and data sharing. From a cancer perspective, Rejto talked about how, unlike the diminishing costs seen in the genome project, cancer drugs are becoming more and more expensive. Learning more about the genome would provide insight into the specific mutations that can give better insight into how different forms of cancer are related and in turn, allow for more efficient treatment crossover.
While more data is becoming readily available, there are still a few roadblocks hindering innovation. Quackenbush warned about the data sharing, privacy concerns and reliance on publishing papers to advance his (and other) careers. If the only way to maintain research grants is to publish research, there is very little incentive to share data and get beaten to the punch. Hospitals and universities hold on to valuable data and file patents hindering its use. This is why all three panelists were quick to stress the critical need to fund science. In fact, of all the grants that get submitted, less than 10% of them receive funding. If we really want to achieve breakthroughs in medical discovery, there needs to be more money and more open sharing of information. Learning more about the human genome will help bring costs down, make data readily available to those who are interested, and in turn increase efficiency and innovation. It’s only a matter of time…