Gene discovery could cure human diseases

August 27 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Health & Medicine   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

Mapping the human genome was a great accomplishment, but genes are little more than a list of chemicals – much like a parts list for a jumbo jet. The list isn’t much good unless you know what each part does and how it fits with other parts. Scientists are just now beginning to understand these inter-workings with our genes – how they keep our bodies young and fit, or allow aging and sickness to take over.

Recently, scientists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have, for the first time, revealed the “controlling elements” of the yeast genome – findings that can immediately be used towards deciphering the human genome.

The key to understanding how genes are controlled lies in tiny bits of chemicals called regulators that intermittently land on a region of DNA and switch that cell’s genes on or off. This switching responds to temperature changes in the body, availability of certain nutrients, and outside chemical messengers. If switched the wrong way, genes can make diabetes, cancer, and other debilitating diseases begin their horrifying trip – if switched the right way, they protect us.

To date, very few regulators have been identified. Locating their landing sites is essential to identifying their function, and therein lays the rub – gene regulators are hard to find. They typically just land on a small stretch of DNA, do their job, and then take off again. And owing to the vastness of the genome, locating just one gene regulator with conventional lab tools can take many years.

But the MIT team developed a method for scanning an entire genome and quickly identifying the precise landing sites for its gene regulators. As a result, scientists now understand how genes and their regulators “talk” to each other. The next challenge is to scale the platform so it can tackle the human genome, something that the researchers are gearing up to do now.

Whitehead member Richard Young, who heads the project, feels passionately about this research. “Out of a world population of over 6 billion, more than million people die each year”, he says. “And countless millions more suffer from heart diseases, cancer, and malaria, at nearly incalculable costs to their families and society”.

Young’s mission is to unravel every disease at the genetic level – to hunt for specific proteins that turn the genetic machinery of disease on, or off. These gene regulators can be knocked out of whack by a virus like HIV or by a mutation that can result in a disease.

MIT researchers believe their work will bring insights into how organ systems work – and where disease is associated with faulty gene regulation, will develop strategies to find cures. This is an important step for all of us who look forward to that “magical future”.

By 2020, or maybe even sooner – we could see an end to all genetic diseases. Just imagine the pleasures of living in a strong body forever-free from disease and aging. I could sure enjoy that, how about you?

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