Genetics research to revolutionise medicine, says Nobel laureate

Individual blueprints to affect privacy and reproduction, says Aaron Ciechanover

A DNA molecule strand with human genome code. Photograph: Steven Hunt/Getty Images

A DNA molecule strand with human genome code. Photograph: Steven Hunt/Getty Images

Tue, Jul 29, 2014, 01:00

The unravelling of the human genetic blueprint has delivered a revolution in the study of health and disease. It is having an impact on treatments today and this will carry forward well into the coming century, a Nobel Prize winner has said.

Prof Aaron Ciechanover was speaking yesterday on the margins of a research conference under way at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute in Dublin. He won a shared Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004 for his study of how the body breaks down and disposes of unwanted proteins.

“We are part of a revolution that will change the whole world of medicine,” he said. New methods that grew out of molecular biology now help scientists discover the underlying genetic causes of disease and then identify drugs that might help in treatments. And it will help deliver drugs with fewer side effects, he said.

Hidden in genome

But we are also entering a period when privacy will be a thing of the past, when your genetic blueprint will reveal things hidden in the genome, he said. It will also separate sex from reproduction given access to advanced technologies. “It is going to be major,” he said.

Molecular biology will also help support personalised medicine, said Prof Bruce Beutler who shared the 2011 prize in medicine and physiology. “Many genetic diseases like type II diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis are caused by an unlucky combination of [altered] genes,” he said. But the mix of 100 or 200 that causes it in one person may be different in the next.

Once the combination is established the most effective drug treatment can be provided for that individual. That is what personalised medicine will be in the future, he said.

It is hugely important that all governments fund basic research, suggested Prof Jules Hoffmann, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his work on the immune system.

When he started research 40 years ago no one doubted the value of discoveries that came from it. “This has changed everywhere,” he said. It was a mistake to abandon basic research in favour of translational research, he warned, however.

Basic research

“I am absolutely convinced every country needs applied research,” he said, but applied research can arise only through conducting basic research. All of the big medical research discoveries arise as a result of basic research, he said.

Prof Beutler strongly agreed about the importance of basic research. It provided an underlying set of skills that could be applied to emerging diseases.

“Imagine where we would have been if we didn’t have the molecular biology tools when HIV came along,” he said. It would have been impossible to identify the virus and find drugs to combat it.

Research students should also take risks when pursuing research ideas, Prof Ciechanover said.

“You have to be in the mainstream but you have to believe you are right,” he said. It was important for young scientists to be determined and not listen to “background noise” from those opposed to their ideas.