June 26, 2000
26 Jun 2000: NIEHS Statement on Mapping the Genome
The sequencing of the human genome is historic, like a landing on the moon or planets. The National Human Genome Research Institute (http://www.genome.gov/) and other participants have taken a monumental step in biomedical science. But the ultimate value of this feat is in what will come afterward. Like a landing on a planet, this feat is valuable because it permits subsequent exploration and discovery, such as the recent indications of water on Mars.
Now that the blueprint for human heredity has been mapped, we are ready to move toward using that map to find ways to improve human health. A next big step is determining the function of each active gene - and how variations in those genes affect our individual susceptibility to the environment and disease.
the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/) (http://www.niehs.nih.gov), headquartered in Research Triangle Park (http://www.rtp.org/) , has already begun an "Environmental Genome Project" (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/programs/egp/index.cfm) to explore this individual susceptibility.
It has been said that our genetic make-up is a "loaded gun" and the environmental factors we encounter "pull the trigger." But the story is probably much more complicated. We think of one genetic and perhaps one environmental cause, such as asbestos or tobacco smoke, for each disease but in many cases there may be several or many genes involved - and several or many substances in the environment are likely to be at play as well. [Family clusters of disease involving strictly the inheritance of a particular variation of a single gene are rare - accounting for no more than 5 percent of known diseases.]
Most of the other chronic diseases will probably not be fully understood until we understand both the genetic and environmental contributions to these diseases' development.
To contribute to this more complex understanding of disease, NIEHS in 1997 initiated the Environmental Genome Project, which promotes research on the role of genetic variations as they play out in the responses of various individuals to environmental exposures. In a rough way, the project seeks to answer the question, "Why me, doc?" Why have I gotten cancer from Chemical A when other people with as much or more exposure seem OK?
The answer may lead to ways to protect the most susceptible people from exposures that would hurt them.
A second area of genome-related studies at NIEHS is even newer. Using many different cloned, human genes, these studies seek to find a new way to spot potentially toxic chemicals quickly and efficiently. In this process, a computer helps scientists see what genes are turned on or off by a chemical -- and whether the pattern seen is similar to that of known poisons.
Today, more than two years of testing a chemical in rodents is often required - but that is too costly a method to use for every chemical (among some 80,000 or more which are in commerce.)
"Toxicogenomics" - as the new field is called - will provide a faster, cheaper way to screen these chemicals, NIEHS scientists believe.
Contacts at NIEHS are, NIEHS Director, Kenneth Olden (919) 541-3201; NIEHS Deputy Director, Samuel Wilson, (919) 541-3267; and Cynthia A. Afshari, (919) 541-1310, and Richard S. Paules, (919) 541-3710, sources on toxicogenetics.
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