The meeting, entitled Genetic Revolution and its Impact on Society, is intended to “deepen the dialogue between the scientific community and the rest of society” according to the Nobel website. The first-of-its-kind gathering precedes the Dec. 10 awarding of the Nobel prizes announced in October.
Sequencing DNA, the inherited information that guides the development of humans and other organisms, with faster and cheaper technologies has opened up new opportunities for fighting disease, hunger and promoting economic well-being, scientists said. With most of the expertise in genetics centered in the academic centers of developed countries, scientists need to ensure the advances reach society’s most vulnerable, said Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council.
“One possibility would be that we would end up with a genetic divide,” she said in a speech at the conference. “I’m most afraid of the corrosive effects of inequalities.”
Genetics has become increasingly pervasive in both academia and industry, said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Genetic modifications are leading to crops that can withstand extreme heat, and new fuel sources, he said at the conference.
The heightened ability to decode genetic material and understand its influence on biology has now moved into the clinic, said Craig Mello, a winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, and genetics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester.
Today, some cancer patients get treatment targeted to mutations discovered in their tumors. DNA sequences can tell doctors how patients will respond to widely used treatments, such as blood thinners. Rare or previously unseen disorders in children that once took years to diagnose can now be classified with by sequencing of the entire genome.
“The impact has been huge,” Mello said in an interview before the conference began. “We are simply learning.”
The widening scope of genetic understanding will push the technology into more routine medical uses, said Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle. New DNA findings may allow doctors to select treatment for schizophrenia based on individual genetics. Tests that screen for about two dozen genes that increase breast cancer risk will soon be available that could benefit all women, she said.
“The presence of these risk genes isn’t always apparent, because they’re inherited from the father about half the time,” she said in an interview at the conference. “About half the women who carry these genes have no family history of breast cancer.”
Heightened public interest in the human genome and its applications has led to some oversimplification of its function and power, said John Dupré, director of the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society in Exeter, U.K. While genes are often described as the “blueprint” for human physiology and behavior, research continues to show that many non-genetic influences contribute to human development, he said.
Doctors still need education in the subtleties of genetics so that they can digest the results of DNA tests, and pass that understanding along to their patients, Dupré said. Patients need to understand that most genes, such as those that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, are seldom sure predictors of future illness.
“We’re still getting a lot of the popular conception that’s grounded in the one-way, causal image of the genome,” he said in an interview at the conference. “The idea that the future of medicine is going to be broadly genetic is a very real danger.”
The conference comes 50 years after James Watson along with the late Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel in 1962 for their discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. To fully realize the potential of the human genome, more of those involved will have to commit to sharing findings about the connections between genes, development, disease and behavior, researchers said. Since the time that the first human genome was fully sequenced in 2001, patents have genes have limited access to some DNA tests and their results, Watson said.
Researchers, governments and patients, whose privacy interests must be taken into account, are all involved, said Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We have bits and pieces of information and we don’t have the complete picture,” said Lander, who also advises President Barack Obama on science, in a speech. “We have a choice: are we going to share that information or is it going to be kept behind many separate walls that will prevent us from learning about it?”
Poor nations are particularly at risk of being left behind in the genetic rush, said Tikki Pang, former director of research policy & cooperation for the World Health Organization in Geneva. Drug and vaccine development, along with access to patented technologies, sometimes pits rich countries against poor countries, said Pang, who is now a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore.
“The problem is not the science, the science is fantastic,” he said in a speech. “The challenge rather is making sure that the benefits of science go to those in greatest need.”
While the Watson, Crick and Wilkins research, published in 1953, appeared abstract at the time, the suitability of the DNA design for encoding and replicating information was obvious immediately, Watson said.
“It was all apparent within 15 minutes,” of completing the correct model, Watson, 84, said at the conference. “It was almost too good to be true.”