Eric Sanders, director of the Broad Institute and professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series on Feb. 25 about the potential of the Human Genome Project as being the bedrock for all future studies on genes.
After the human genome sequence was successfully decoded in 2003, the discovery changed the scientific community’s perspective on biology.
‘Because of the genome revolution, we have comprehensive views of biomedicine,’ Sanders said. ‘With the finite genetic information, we can establish complete accountings of its components.’
According to Sanders, biology is all about information. There were many discoveries dealing with genes during the 20th century, but the completion of the Human Genome Project marked the beginning of a new era in which scientists have the ability to read the genetic information of every individual.
‘The Genome Project allows us to have a systematic approach to diseases,’ Sanders said. ‘Before, we were either really smart or lucky when we found causes of diseases.’
The HGP was a joint collaboration of labs across six countries. Researchers set out to gain knowledge of the human genome, including genetic maps, physical maps, nucleotide sequences and a gene list. The purpose of the project was to provide tools for future researchers. It was intended to make this information freely available without restriction.
Researchers of the HGP have corrected many misconceptions about human genes, such as the misperception that there are 30,000 genes in the human genome.
‘Less than 1.5 percent of the human genome is genes,’ Sanders said.
Now that the HGP is finished for practical purposes, researchers have decided to take on more challenging goals.
‘We want to know all sequences in the human genome, functional elements, human genetic variations, signatures of cellular response and all mechanisms of cancer mutations,’ Sanders said.
Researchers want to decipher genomes and learn the effect of altering nucleotides.
When the mouse genome was compared with the human genome, researchers found that the two were very similar. The genomes of humans, mice, rats and dogs have identical genetic sequence areas. These similar sequences were preserved through evolution, and support the theory of common ancestry among the different species.
‘The target is to get the genomes of 15 to 20 mammals,’ Sanders said. ‘So far, the genomes of animals such as the elephant, shrew, armadillo and bat are available on the Internet.’
According to Sanders, there have been 3,000 generations of humans, and not much time has passed to allow for many mutations to exist. The knowledge of mutations allows for researchers to work on treatments for diseases.
‘We now have spreadsheets that show variants enriched for diseases,’ Sanders said. ‘So far we know 8 million of the 12 million common genetic variations.’
Developing technology revolutionized the approach of disease treatment. Leukemia was found to have two different types, which explains why various leukemia patients need to be treated differently. This type of discovery aids in pinpointing the mechanisms of cancer.
‘A drug for lung cancer, Iressa, almost did not get [Food and Drug Administration] approval because it did poorly in clinical testing,’ Sanders said. ‘It turns out that it aids in the recovery of patients with a particular subtype of lung cancer that 10 percent of the patients suffered from. We need to make these kinds of treatment discoveries for all diseases.’
Kim Swennen, an Irvine resident, was pleased with the presentation.
‘I found it great and very informative,’ Swennen said. ‘It’s exciting to see what’s going on behind the scenes.’
Sean Nardi, a second-year biological sciences major, added, ‘It is interesting to find out how much we have accomplished and what we still need to find out.’