The 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands
What good is the human genome to us?
“Without the genome, we would not be human, we wouldn’t even be here at all. It is the complete set of ‘instructions’ according to which we are made and operate. I think what they mean by the question is: what good is the knowledge of the human genome to us?” says professor Joep Geraedts, who remembers a TV moment in 2001: Clinton and Blair trumpeted that the human genome had been fully mapped out. “Those efforts had taken fifteen years and a considerable amount of money, more than a billion dollars. Moreover, the unravelled genome was from a number of different people. It was also known that there were substantial ‘gaps’ but nevertheless, it was a step forward. Certainly if you realise that every individual genome is comparable to a book with a million pages, with three thousand letters per page.”
Over the years, computer technology has advanced – and become much cheaper – to such an extent that unhealthy ‘letters’ or genes are easier to detect. “This is about to happen on a large scale. One could compare, for example, a child's DNA with that of its father and mother and discover flawed genes in the toddler. Eventually one hopes to be able to focus the treatment on this and make it a tailor-made one.”
A time will come when everyone will carry a USB stick containing his or her genetic profile, Geraedts reckons. “Basically it is no different to carrying a card stating your blood type. In both cases it is data concerning your predispositions.” So when you go to see a specialist in a hospital, the doctor will ask for your USB stick? “Eventually, yes. You know, I actually don’t dare to make predictions anymore. If you had told me twenty years ago that we would now be able to identify all genes for a 1,000 dollars, I would not have believed you.”
Geraedts' is worried about the (American) companies that analyse one's DNA for more than 200 diseases, for only 99 dollars. “How it works? You are worried about your health, send some cheek saliva to such a company, and you receive by e-mail results that are not always reassuring. An increased risk will always pop up when you check for so many diseases. And what does it mean, if you have 10 times as much chance of contracting a certain disease? People are usually poor at estimating chances. It is also bad news for people who are looking for reassurance. Certainly in the case of Alzheimer's disease, for which there is currently no cure.”
The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has listed the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. The 50th is the result of a competition, which was won by two UM researchers.