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{bio,medical} informatics

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

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The New York Times Do Races Differ? Not Really, DNA Shows
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"Scientists have long suspected that the racial categories recognized by society are not reflected on the genetic level.

But the more closely that researchers examine the human genome -- the complement of genetic material encased in the heart of almost every cell of the body -- the more most of them are convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by "race" have little or no biological meaning.""

"Through transglobal sampling of neutral genetic markers -- stretches of genetic material that do not help create the body's functioning proteins but instead are composed of so-called junk DNA -- researchers have found that, on average, 88 percent to 90 percent of the differences between people occur within their local populations, while only about 10 percent to 12 percent of the differences distinguish one population, or race, from another.

To put it another way, the citizens of any given village in the world, whether in Scotland or Tanzania, hold 90 percent of the genetic variability that humanity has to offer."

""Ethnicity is a broad concept that encompasses both genetics and culture," Dr. Anand said. "Thinking about ethnicity is a way to bring together questions of a person's biology, lifestyle, diet, rather than just focusing on race. Ethnicity is about phenotype and genotype, and, if you define the terms of your study, it allows you to look at differences between groups in a valid way."
redux [08.01.00]
GeneLetter Inequalities and individualized medicine
"Over the next few years a number of competing groups - my own company, Sequenom, among them -- will sort through the diverse genetic material of the human species to find those variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced SNIPS) that predispose individuals to major clinical disorders."

“At present the overwhelming bulk of the effort to identify these natural variations is in the private sector. This is inevitable because SNPs that associate with major diseases are patentable, by traditional standards."

"Whatever ensues, it is clear that the rate of discovery of medically important SNPs and their conversion into clinically useful tools will not progress equally fast or uniformly for all segments of mankind."

"It will be easier to discover medically important SNPs in geographically isolated and inbred populations in which good familial records and where migration has not introduced confounding genetic variation. Iceland and Finland are strong early candidates."
redux [07.17.00]
Orchid Biosciences The SNP Consortium and Orchid Announce Collaboration to Determine Frequency of SNPs in Diverse Populations
"Orchid BioSciences, Inc. (Nasdaq: ORCH) and The SNP Consortium Ltd. today announced that they have entered into an agreement under which Orchid will determine the allelic frequency of 60,000 single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genomic markers in diverse populations. This work will be undertaken in Orchid's MegaSNPatron(TM) service facility in Princeton using its SNP-IT(TM) primer extension technology."
GeneLetter Drawing DNA lines of ethnicity
"The idea of using genetics to determine ethnic heritage has been growing in popularity over recent years. When Rick Kittles, a geneticist at Howard University, offered to trace tribal roots via a $350 DNA test, African Americans flooded his telephone line with requests.

"Even if an identifying marker shows up, the result isn't necessarily definitive. While certain markers may be more common to one ethnic group, most also can be found in other populations as well.

"Because of the tremendous genetic variation within populations, it would be biologically impossible to settle on a limited number of genetic markers that could define "Native Americans," says Morris Foster, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma who has wrestled with the risks faced by Indian tribes interested in genetic research.

Furthermore, Foster added in an e-mail interview with GeneLetter, "it is absurd to try to define what is essentially a social identity by using biological characteristics. This, though, is how racism has historically worked.""
redux [06.15.00]
New England Journal Of Medicine Rules for Research on Human Genetic Variation -- Lessons from Iceland
"DNA molecules are entirely separate from medical records. In the future, however, the DNA molecule and the medical record are likely to merge into one when it becomes possible to sequence a person's entire genome and put that information on a computer chip or disk. This is not deCODE's current project, but we should not wait until this step is taken to explore its implications. The most important questions would then be who has the authority to make such a disk in the first place; who owns the disk; who controls the use of the disk; and whether the disk containing the genome should be treated as specially protected medical information, as is the case for psychiatric and drug-dependency records? In clinical settings, it seems reasonable to treat such a disk as containing particularly private and sensitive medical information. It also seems reasonable to permit patients to agree to have their entire genome scanned without detailing the tens of thousands of tests that would be run. This is akin to consent to a battery of tests during an annual physical examination.

On the other hand, in a research setting, or when a specific genetic disorder is suspected, the creation and use of an individual patient's genome disk should be subject to the informed consent of the patient. And since they can be both separated from the medical record and readily recreated, research subjects should retain the right to have the files containing their genetic information destroyed at any time.

Iceland's experience with deCODE provides a useful catalyst for formulating fair and ethical rules for research on genetic variation. The Icelandic experience demonstrates that people are concerned about how genetic research is done, that medical-records research and DNA-based research are not the same, that community consultation is necessary but not sufficient to justify DNA-based research ethically, that the probable benefits of such research should be spelled out as clearly as possible, and that international standards for consent to and withdrawal from research should apply directly to research on human genetic variation. Rules for such research will retain their relevance even after it becomes possible to transfer all the genetic-sequence information in a DNA molecule to a computer disk."
redux [02.13.00]
The Daily Davos Beyond the Genome
"By the spring of this year, the first draft of the human genome -- the sequence of all the genetic instructions needed to make up a human being -- will be published on the Web. But that is only the end of the beginning. Scientists still have very little idea of what most of the 100,000 or so human genes actually do, and finding out will take them into a very different area of research.

The raw material of the genome program has been anonymous samples of DNA, manipulated by complex laboratory machines that turn out information like a production line turns out widgets. But the new era of post-genome research involves analysing real people and their confidential medical records. The records are needed to match the genes that people carry with the diseases they may develop. Only then will gigabytes of genetic data into new treatments for cancer or heart disease. And that is why socialised healthcare is a vital part of post-genome research.

Countries such as the U.S., which provide healthcare through private enterprise, are useless for this sort of genetic inquiry. Only those countries which have organized the delivery of healthcare to their population in a way that is independent of the marketplace have built up the universal medical records necessary to make sense of the patterns of disease."

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Bioinformatics will be at the core of biology in the 21st century. In fields ranging from structural biology to genomics to biomedical imaging, ready access to data and analytical tools are fundamentally changing the way investigators in the life sciences conduct research and approach problems. Complex, computationally intensive biological problems are now being addressed and promise to significantly advance our understanding of biology and medicine. No biological discipline will be unaffected by these technological breakthroughs.


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