Coming soon: celebrity genomes on DVD

Posted by admin on May 21, 2008

Jim Watson, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, will be presented with a unique scientific prize this week: a DVD disc containing details of every one of the 3 billion units of DNA that make up his genes.

The award – to be made at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston on Thursday – is unprecedented. Yet if biotechnology companies get their way, a host of other scientists and celebrities will soon follow suit.

Among those lined up are Stephen Hawking; Larry King, the US talk show host; and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. In addition, Watson has been pushing, in private, for British stars, such as Wayne Rooney and Kate Moss, to be asked to have their genomes published.

Each person’s entire complement of genes – their genome – would be sequenced and published on discs and the internet. Their genetic blueprints – which determine height, eye colour, disease susceptibility and a host of other features – will be revealed to the world.

The aim is to defuse public worries as it becomes cheaper and cheaper to decode genomes. The first genome cost more than $1 billion, and took several years, to sequence. Now costs have dropped to under $1 million and could be cut to under $1,000 in a few years.

“The first genome was a composite made up from several different people and was meant to represent an average human being,” said Chris McLeod, chief executive of the Connecticut company 454 Life Sciences which sequenced Watson’s genome. “But as prices plunge we will be able to sequence genomes of specific people.”

Armed with this knowledge, doctors will be able to personalise treatments so medicines meet specific individuals’ requirements and match their genetic blueprints. Hence the involvement of famous scientists and celebrities. They are being involved to calm public worries that sequencing would provide data that could be misused by police, insurers or employers. But many scientists dislike involving famous people this way. At a recent genomics meeting in New York, several leading scientists raised objections to the rise of celebrity genetics.

“I’d hate the availability of genome sequencing to be based purely on money and fame,” Professor Michael Ashburner, a geneticist at Cambridge University, told the journal Nature. “Just doing famous or very rich people is bloody tacky, actually.”

In addition, many scientists fear cheap genome sequencing could have other, worrying consequences. Professor Steve Jones of University College London, said: “If you make your genome public, you are not just revealing information about yourself and what diseases you might be susceptible to, you are also giving away crucial data about the kind of illnesses your children might be prone to. Each of your children gets half your genes, after all. They might not want the world to know about the risks they face and become very unhappy in later life that you went public. Your other relatives might equally be displeased.”

This point has been acknowledged by Watson. Nevertheless, he has decided to go ahead and have his entire genome put on the internet this week – with the exception of one gene associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease – Watson does not wish to reveal his risks of getting the disease.

However, there are other concerns, as Professor Ashburner points out. “Anyone who commits relatively minor offences can have their DNA taken and analysed. At present, the main use of this process is to create a DNA fingerprint that can be used to identify that individual. But soon we will be able to create an entire genome sequence of that individual from a swab or blood sample. We will end up knowing everything about their genes. In the end, we could have millions of people on a database and know every single genetic secret of each person. That has to be a very worrying prospect.”

in The Observer

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