We use cookies to make sure our website better meets your expectations.
You can adjust your web browser's settings to stop accepting cookies. For further information, read our cookie policy.
IN Warsaw
Exchange Rates
Warsaw Stock Exchange - Indices
The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 17, 2009
You have to be logged in to use the ReadSpeaker utility and listen to a text. It's free-of-charge. Just log in to the site or register if you are not registered user yet.
Tracking Bad Genes
June 17, 2009   
Article's tools:

It sounds a bit like science fiction-a collection of genetic "fingerprints" from tens of millions of people around the world, mobilized to help understand and cure diseases such as multiple sclerosis. But it's precisely what Martin Yuille, a professor at the University of Manchester in Britain, is hoping to create, with the help of Polish scientists.

Yuille brought his message to Warsaw in early June at a discussion hosted by the British embassy and the Polish ministry of education.

So-called biobanks, or collections of blood or tissue samples that store each person's unique genetic material, already exist at scientific and medical institutions around the world. Yuille hopes to build a network of these banks, giving scientists access to the thousands or even millions of samples they need to find small genetic variations that cause disease. Once scientists identify the gene that causes a particular disease, they can try to develop a drug to cure that disease by affecting how that gene works. It's a scientifically complex project, but also one that's about building relationships across institutions and countries.

"Biomedical science today requires a large number of samples from patients and healthy people to identify genes which cause disease and understand the environmental factors," Yuille told the Voice after the meeting. "It's a major effort to bring together scientists who have not previously known each other.

Call to scientists
"It means we come out of our separate institutions, in some cases our ivory towers. We need to do that because the leading science needs that, and if Poland wants to contribute, it's essential."

His work is part of an effort funded by the European Commission, which has already contributed to research at 50 institutions around the continent.

Scientists at the University of Manchester, where Yuille is a professor, are currently analyzing samples from 14,000 patients from around the continent to try to find the genes responsible for multiple sclerosis. Collaboration is essential because there simply aren't enough cases of the disease in Britain.

As with any scientific research, Yuille warns that results that could change our lives are still a long way off.

"We won't have a breakthrough in terms of treatment for a decade or two. It's like getting to the North Pole. It's a long time getting there before you can put your flag in the ice."

While getting scientists to work together is part of the challenge, collecting samples can also pose difficulty.

People who suffer from genetic disease happily contribute to research, he said.

"The vast majority-well over 90 percent of patients-when they come to the clinic want to participate. They don't want other people to have further suffering," he said. "There's almost an ethical requirement on the bioresearcher to use that information to effect. To fail to use a sample would be something a patient would find strange."

The best way to use a sample is to make it accessible to researchers around the world studying a vast assortment of diseases from a variety of perspectives. That's what the biobanking project is trying to achieve, to replace the current fragmented collections of samples that aren't easily accessible.

Ethical issues
Getting samples from healthy patients is more difficult. In Britain, scientists have gotten samples from blood donors who agree to give a bit more blood to be used in research, or from newborns whose parents agree to donate some blood so their child's genetic development can be tracked over time. "It's an opportunity for citizens to become scientists and to contribute," he said.

Of course, there are ethical issues. Medical researchers must make sure no samples are misused, and that details of people's medical history remain private, Yuille said.

The project already has links to several of the new EU states, including Estonia and Romania. Now, Yuille wants to bring Polish scientists into the fold.

"Poland has ancient universities and a history of excellent science. I'm here to help improve the cooperation that exists between Polish and British biomedical scientists in general, and in particular to develop research infrastructure."

Yuille's interest in biobanking comes from his own experience with genetic research. About nine years ago, he decided to change his focus from researching the cause of disease to developing research infrastructure to help others do this research.

"A big cultural shift is taking place within biomedical science that is as big as the movement of humanity from hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society. When we were hunter-gatherers, we went out to find our nuts and our mammoth. In an agricultural society, people got together to sew the seeds and milk the sheep. We needed much better communication, and society flourished.

"We are going from a hunter-gatherer stage to one where we are beginning to organize the harvesting of samples for the benefit of all."

Magda Konieczna
© The Warsaw Voice 2010-2018
E-mail Marketing Powered by SARE