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image European Research News Centre > Medecine and Health > Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health: the new picture of health
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health: the new picture of health
RTD info special FP6
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  The accelerating pace of scientific and technological progress which made it possible, within just a decade, to complete the first full sequencing of the human genome – and of a growing number of other living organisms – is heralding a new era in molecular biology and genetics, in particular for human medicine. However, it is going to take a very large-scale and long-term research effort if the promises of this 'post-genomic age' are to be realised.
   
   

At the end of 2000, the race between the vast international public consortium behind the Human Genome project and the private company Celera, headed by the American Craig Venter, resulted in a joint first – the announcement, amid much media fanfare, of the sequencing of the more than 3 billion nucleotide 'letters' which make up the human DNA macromolecule. The event was rightly heralded as a significant step towards a revolutionary new scientific age of the 21st century. It is an achievement which brings extraordinary new prospects for the world of medicine.

A complete genomic mapping of man opens the door to the identification of his genes and subsequently to all the proteins these genes code for the complete functioning of the human body. This new biological 'tool' therefore has the potential to change completely our whole approach to the treatment of disease, making it possible to modify deficient genes (gene therapy) or produce new medicines – as is already the case for insulin administered to diabetics.

From the quantitative to the qualitative

The job of decoding the complete genome is now giving way to the so-called post-genomic approach. This involves a long and delicate hypothetical and deductive study of the hundreds of millions of data stored in US, European and Japanese databanks. Work is already well under way on this and scientific journals are constantly announcing new genetic lines of inquiry on the basis of the initial indicators obtained from studies or experiments involving a particular sequence. The potential applications concern the most diverse diseases – cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular complaints, children's diseases and rare, communicable or neuro-degenerative diseases.

Post-genomics also brings the prospect of surprises and unexpected discoveries which could overturn some accepted ideas and provide new and unsuspected insight into the fundamental mechanisms of life. The most recent and surprising of these concerned the number of genes which govern the human body. It was assumed to be several hundred million. The real figure has now had to be drastically revised downward to about 30 000 – which is about the same number as in a 'lower' micro-organism such as yeast.

The genetic iceberg

This disconcerting discovery suggests that identifying all these genes is most probably the tip of the knowledge iceberg. The real key lies in the incredible complexity of the manufacture of the hundreds of thousands of proteins, characterised by their subtle three-dimensional deployment. This in turn brings us to a new science, the daughter of post-genomics: proteomics. The mystery also remains regarding the innumerable alignments of the letters – whose significance is not known – which make up the global sequencing of the human genome and of which genes are just a small part.


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Stem cells cause a stir

The discovery of stem cells – just four years ago – and the promise they hold, has caused quite a stir in the world of biology and medicine. These originally undifferentiated cells develop in the human egg from the moment it is fertilised. They are a double exception to the usual laws of biology in that they can reproduce exceptionally quickly while, at the same time, being able to produce, as the embryo develops, specialised cells which make up all the developing organs. It is this extraordinary mutability observed at the very origins of life which has given rise to the hope that stem cells can be used for therapeutic purposes. Control of this biological pluri- or totipotence could open up a new and revolutionary era in regenerative medicine.

Such hopes face a very real ethical problem, however, given the very special nature of the 'living material' on which they are based: the human embryo. This is a subject on which people have very strong feelings and is at present the subject of much debate, especially at European level (1). This is why the possibility is currently being explored of identifying the existence of 'adult' stem cells in certain mammals, which would remove many of the ethical objections.

When and how could the fruits of this fundamental research find applications in the medical field? This is difficult to predict. But the accelerating pace of research on the life sciences – and the mobilisation of resources to fuel it – could mean that we should expect some surprising announcements.

(1) In December 2001, the European Commission organised a comprehensive exchange of opinions on stem cells and the therapies for the future, during a conference attended by scientists, politicians and representatives of civil society.
http://ec.europa.eu/research/quality-of-life/stemcells.html

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Life and the computer

The rapid progress in the field of genomics would not have been possible without the support of major advances in software and complex algorithms. This progress has enabled supercomputers to count, compare and classify the huge mass of results obtained by biochemical analyses – also automated – based on the four DNA nucleotides. Relying on the development of a new generation of microprocessors known as DNA chips, bio-informatics has become a booming scientific technology, progress in which will be crucial for the post-genomic and proteomic era. In Europe, the hub of this new discipline, in its own right, is the infrastructure provided by the European Bioinformatics Institute of Hinxton (UK). This institute was set up under the auspices of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), one of three databanks – along with the GenBank in the USA and the DNA Data Bank of Japan – housing the data collected by the Human Genome project.

To find out more:
http://www.ebi.ac.uk/
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