Genetic 'magic bullet' cures have proven a 'false dawn'
Genetic 'magic bullet' cures have proven a 'false dawn'
By Richard Alleyne and Kate Devlin
Daily Telegraph, 21 April 2009
*Leading scientist Prof Steve Jones has claimed that the hope that genetic research could provide a cure for a host of common illnesses has proved a "false dawn".
Prof Jones, a geneticist, said the belief that a few genes held the key to ridding the world of conditions such as cancer and diabetes had proved to be "plain wrong".
In most cases, hundreds of genes are responsible, and often they have less effect than other factors such as diet, lifestyle and the environment.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph today, the academic and author called for a complete overhaul of the "scattergun" approach to genetic research, which is backed by millions of pounds in funding by governments and medical charities such as the Wellcome Trust.
Prof Jones said he was one of a number of "renegade" scientists who were beginning to question the research. "It's not done to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, nor to bite the hand that feeds you - nor, in my own profession, to criticise the research programme of the Wellcome Trust, an enormously rich charity that paid much of the bill to read the message written in human DNA.
"Not done, perhaps: but a pack of renegade biologists has turned on that source of nutrition to claim that what it is doing is welcome, but plain wrong."
"We thought it [genetic research] was going to change our lives but that has turned out to be a false dawn."
Prof Jones, who does not name the other scientists, said the idea that the research would be a "cure all" for many common illnesses such as cancer and diabetes had led scientists down a "blind alley" and they must now rethink their approach.
His intervention is likely to trigger a debate into the usefulness of genetic research and on whether the hundreds of millions invested would be better spent elsewhere.
Prof Jones, the head of the biology department at University College London, said there had been "too much optimism" surrounding research into genes and that there was a danger it had become "largely unfounded". "Just a couple of years ago, there was real optimism that a new era of understanding was around the corner," he said. "That did not last long, for hubris has been replaced with concern."
Prof Jones added: "Of course there have been some successes, but it is the 'cure all' aspect of the work that has proved unfounded.
"It is the nature of the business that occasionally you go down the wrong road and that pretty much is what looks like has happened now."
Hundreds of millions of pounds was pumped into research into genetics after scientists mapped the human genome in 2003 and there were some early successes with rare inherited diseases such as haemophilia. Scientists embarked on a search for rogue genes responsible for just about every modern malady, hoping such conditions could be blamed on a small set of genes - which could then lead to a cure.
But the more they investigated, the more complicated they realised finding a cure would be. Many individual genes say little about the real risk of illness, and they found diet and the environment had a significant influence on the development of disease.
Even when scientists have identified genes linked to conditions such as diabetes and Crohn's disease they have discovered that they account for less than 10 per cent of inherited influence.
Prof Jones said it may be time to "stop throwing good money after bad".
"Genetics has been a series of revolutions of diminished expectations.
It doesn't look very optimistic," he said.
"We have wandered into a blind alley and it might be better that we come out of it and start again."
However, Prof Marcus Pembrey, a clinical geneticist and chairman of the Progress Education Trust, a think tank on genetics, denied the research "was a waste of time or money". "There is nothing wrong with genetic research and it had some breakthroughs but it has not turned out to be the panacea that it was first hoped," he said.
Prof Pembrey said the focus of research should be on studying human genes and how they are affected by and interact with the environment - especially when people are young.
Prof George Ebers, a professor of clinical neurology at Oxford University and an expert on genes, said: "There has been disappointment in this field.
"The expectation was that there would be a lot of important things found and that has not panned out. However, there were small things uncovered which do have important significance. One gene found for multiple sclerosis, for Continued on Page 2 Continued from Page 1 instance, does not give you the disease but it does tell us more about how it is caused in the body.
"These are things we would not know had we not gone through this process."
Prof John Burn, a professor of clinical genetics at the University of Newcastle, said genetic research into colon cancer had been a success but it was "the exception that proved the rule".
"People have now a very simplistic leap to the idea that everything that is genetic can be traced back to a simple genetic mistake," Prof Burn said.
"We have seen already with the example of height that yes, there are genes that influence how tall someone is but there is also environment and diet.
"Very large studies have shown that a two per cent variation in height can be controlled by 17 different genes. But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
"Although genetic disorders are rare, with more than 6,000 different genetic disorders, they affect an awful lot of people."
Prof Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium, which funds a number of genetic studies, said: "The pace of genetic findings is changing at an immense rate and we are now able to analyse human variation in health and disease on a scale unimaginable even just a few years ago.
"It may be years - decades, even - before this knowledge is translated into new treatments, but such research is essential if we are to make progress."
Prof Jones also gave warning that thousands of people were "wasting their money" on genetic tests - an industry that is to be examined by The Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The Nuffield Council has already said that expensive private health "MoTs", including the use of DNA profiles to predict the risk of developing deadly diseases, could be doing "more harm than good".
But it is the main thrust of Prof Jones' argument that has sparked debate among his fellow scientists.
Prof Jones said: "Whatever the panjandrums of science decide to do with their Everest of cash, it is time to turn to one of the few genetical proverbs, for their mountain has laboured and brought forth not much more than a mouse.
"And what was that adage about throwing good money after bad?"