Spring 2011

The Future is in Your DNA

Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, Quebec Minister of Economic Development Clément Gignac, genomicist Mark Lathrop, CEO & President of Génome Québec Jean-Marc Proulx, and Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of Medicine Richard I. Levin at the official announcement of Lathrop’s recruitment to the directorship of the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre. Photo Credit: Paul Fournier

The arrival of star genomicist Mark Lathrop at the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre couldn’t have come at a more perfect moment. Auspiciously, the celebrations were held on the tenth anniversary (almost to the day) of Nature’s first publication of the human genome sequence. Despite the commentary from naysayers, that historic event undoubtedly changed medicine forever. Via genomics, medicine will become a more personalized, predictive and preventive science. McGill is better positioned than ever to lead the field.

Last month, Nature published a ten-year follow up to its 2001 report, telling readers, “The best is yet to come.” Just how optimistic do we have a right to be about genomics?

It’s true that progress in genomics has not been as swift as many would like. We have not found “the cure” for cancer; chronic diseases like stroke and heart disease are still leading killers around the world; our health care systems are overburdened. In a world of finite resources, genomics requires a big investment. A state-of-the-art gene sequencer – the workhorse of a world-class facility like the Innovation Centre – can cost close to a million dollars. But if we don’t use the map that these sequencers will provide, we’re telling doctors and nurses that both the chronic and well-known medical mysteries they see on the wards will remain unsolved. We cannot accept such a proposition.

What is beyond doubt is that genomics has already made itself indispensable. Cancer drugs, for example, are now commonly tested against the responses of particular individuals with particular genes. This ensures targeted therapies that improve a patient’s prognosis. Meanwhile, genomicists can start to build a bigger picture of how variance across individuals and populations can help match the right drugs to the right people.
With every passing year, the evolving technology of genomics accelerates progress, and genomics is an area where progress can be measured exponentially. Bio-ITWorld.com reported this year that some life sciences companies are already charging under $10,000 to sequence a human genome. When James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, had his genome sequenced in 2007, the cost was $1 million. The race for the $1,000 genome is on.

With a complete genomics “map” of every individual becoming widely accessible, you can imagine a day when DNA tests are as ubiquitous and practical as a doctor’s stethoscope, perhaps more so. In such an environment, genomics requires an ongoing investment in research, education and infrastructure. McGill and Quebec have jointly proclaimed that the Innovation Centre will be one of the “Grand Central Stations” of genomics. This means that we will help invent the future of health care and health sciences.

Nature has it right. The best of the genomics era is yet to come. I am delighted that our University is able to enhance its leading role in unlocking the medical mysteries of this era for the benefit of Quebec, Canada and the world.

Richard I. Levin, MD
Vice-Principal (Health Affairs)
Dean, Faculty of Medicine
McGill University

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