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Lifescience, Genomics, and Biotechnology for Health
Average reader rating: 9  
by European Research 2002 06 the future of Medicine

The new picture of health
The accelerating pace of scientific and technological progress, which made it possible, within just a decade, to complete the first full sequencing of the human genome - and of a growing number of other living organisms - is heralding a new era in molecular biology and genetics, in particular for human medicine. However, it is going to take a very large-scale and long-term research effort if the promises of this 'post-genomic age' are to be realised.

At the end of 2000, the race between the vast international public consortium behind the Human Genome project and the private company Celera, headed by the American Craig Venter, resulted in a joint first - the announcement, amid much media fanfare, of the sequencing of the more than 3 billion nucleotide 'letters' which make up the human DNA macromolecule. The event was rightly heralded as a significant step towards a revolutionary new scientific age of the 21st century. It is an achievement which brings extraordinary new prospects for the world of medicine.

A complete genomic mapping of man opens the door to the identification of his genes and subsequently to all the proteins these genes code for the complete functioning of the human body. This new biological 'tool' therefore has the potential to change completely our whole approach to the treatment of disease, making it possible to modify deficient genes (gene therapy) or produce new medicines - as is already the case for insulin administered to diabetics.

From the quantitative to the qualitative

The job of decoding the complete genome is now giving way to the so-called post-genomic approach. This involves a long and delicate hypothetical and deductive study of the hundreds of millions of data stored in US, European and Japanese databanks. Work is already well under way on this and scientific journals are constantly announcing new genetic lines of inquiry on the basis of the initial indicators obtained from studies or experiments involving a particular sequence. The potential applications concern the most diverse diseases - cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular complaints, children's diseases and rare, communicable or neuro-degenerative diseases.

Post-genomics also brings the prospect of surprises and unexpected discoveries which could overturn some accepted ideas and provide new and unsuspected insight into the fundamental mechanisms of life. The most recent and surprising of these concerned the number of genes which govern the human body. It was assumed to be several hundred million. The real figure has now had to be drastically revised downward to about 30 000 - which is about the same number as in a 'lower' micro-organism such as yeast.

The genetic iceberg
This disconcerting discovery suggests that identifying all these genes is most probably the tip of the knowledge iceberg. The real key lies in the incredible complexity of the manufacture of the hundreds of thousands of proteins, characterised by their subtle three-dimensional deployment. This in turn brings us to a new science, the daughter of post-genomics: proteomics. The mystery also remains regarding the innumerable alignments of the letters - whose significance is not known - which make up the global sequencing of the human genome and of which genes are just a small part.

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