The New York Times today reported on the utter failure for medical research to find anything useful to do with the human genome. A full 10 years after the human genome map was completed (and the rush to patent your body parts began), the promised treatments for cancer, Alzheimers and other diseases have yet to materialize. Companies purporting to develop cures based on genetic manipulation have become little more than serial failures. That wasn't what everyone was sold 10 years ago when, as the Times reports, "Francis Collins, then the director of the genome agency at the National Institutes of Health, said that genetic diagnosis of diseases would be accomplished in 10 years and that treatments would start to roll out perhaps five years after that."
"Over the longer term, perhaps in another 15 or 20 years, you will see a complete transformation in therapeutic medicine," Collins said, according to the Times.
Uh-huh. This is exactly the type of bloviation from which the medical community suffers which I noted in my last post.
The problem here is not so much a lack of effort or funding -- billions of dollars have been poured into this research -- but a basic lack of understanding of the role of genes in human health. Which shouldn't be surprising, given that mainstream medicine has not yet even figured out the real cause of something as simple as heartburn, despite the evidence in front of it. (If you want to find out the causes -- and a simple treatment -- for heartburn, you'll have to click here and subscribe to my newsletter.)
Several years ago, I took some interest in the low-cost DNA tests that were just beginning to be offered. Always one to look for a better way to gather the data I need to treat patients, DNA testing seemed to be just the thing. It would -- I thought -- help me to tailor my nutritional therapies for patients.
It wasn't long until I realized that the tests were virtually useless. The tests told me nothing about a patient that I couldn't surmise -- more accurately and at less cost -- by conducting a thorough history and doing a proper examination. Interestingly, a research study looking at risk factors for heart disease came to the same conclusion.
The trouble is that the mere existence of a gene does not mean that the gene is active. Genes get turned on and off all of the time -- in fact, that's what most cells do for a living, turn a gene on, produce a couple of proteins or other necessary items, and turn it back off.
Genes can be turned on by a variety of things -- environment, drugs, and even -- hold onto your hat, Annie -- food! Yup, nutrients cause genes to do all kinds of things. In fact, you could quite safely argue that when I recommend supplements to patients, I am conducting a form of gene therapy. (And you thought chiropractic wasn't cutting edge!)
Add this genetic plasticity to the fact that (except in rare conditions that we've been aware of for half a century), there exists no one-to-one correlation between a gene and a disease (as well as the fact that genes can play multiple roles in different processes), and you arrive at the rather obvious conclusion that this approach doesn't really seem like a good idea.
Even if you were able to develop a drug that could manipulate genes on such a massive scale, the odds are that it would have enough side effects to kill a horse, limiting its utility.
So 10 years after the gun went off, all of the horses are returning to the gate, sweaty, tired and without their riders. The promise of gene therapy has turned out like all days at the track -- noisy, hot, and after watching everybody run around in circles for a long time, you go home poorer than you left.