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Targeted treatments, big data and the pros and cons of having your genome sequenced


The ICR’s Professor Nazneen Rahman took part in an international debate on genomics – and is keen to hear your views on knowing your sequence

Posted on 23 January, 2015 by Eva Sharpe

Would you have your genome sequenced if given the chance?

When the question was posed to a room full of 16-18 years olds recently at an event on genomics, the majority said that they wouldn’t.

At the event, Professor Nazneen Rahman, was being quizzed by school students from all over the world in an interactive debate on genome sequencing at the Wellcome Collection in London. As Head of Genetics and Epidemiology here at The Institute of Cancer Research in London and Head of Cancer Genetics at our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden, she has a lot of experience to share from both a scientific and clinical perspective.

Professor Rahman spoke to the philosopher A C Grayling in front of an audience of more than 170 sixth formers as well as, audiences of students in Saõ Paulo, Brazil and Aburi, Ghana who were able to interact with the debate taking place in London.

There was a lively discussion, with questions from the audience covering the science behind genome sequencing and personalised medicine, the implications for treatment as well as ethics, morality and the life of a scientist and doctor.

One of the examples that the audience kept coming back to was that of the BRCA genes, which when mutated increase a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Professor Rahman gave some background to her research into cancer predisposition genes, which can increase the risk of cancer. 

She explained that with the sorts of predisposition genes that she works on, genetics isn’t deterministic, it’s just one part of the bigger picture. But by knowing your risk, you can manage your options, for example by choosing to get screened more often or having preventative surgery.

For those who have cancer, knowing whether they have inherited a predisposition gene can allow doctors to tailor treatment to match the specific fault. Professor Rahman spoke about a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors, the development of which was underpinned by ICR science, and which target tumours with BRCA mutations. We have blogged about PARP inhibitors before and you can read more here.

All sorts of aspects of genomics were debated, male breast cancer, inspiring scientists and the future of science publishing. One of the most interesting questions for me came towards the end of the session, when an audience member from Brazil asked about the future of genome sequencing over the next 10 years, and what the impact would be on science and society. Professor Rahman explained that over the next decade we would move from having hundreds of people’s genome sequenced, to having hundreds of thousands of genomes across the globe, and that aggregating all of this data will have major impacts on both science and medicine.

These expectations were brought to life a few days later when President Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative which it is expected to include sequencing 1 million genomes to understand both the underlying causes of and targeted treatments for a range of diseases including cancer.

There was a great discussion too on the pros and cons of having your own genome sequenced. The audience heard how it can be complicated and that people’s views often vary depending on whether they have an illness where the information will be useful in their treatment planning and disease management, or whether they are healthy.

Luckily for us, the event was recorded by the BBC and broadcast on BBC World service all over the world, and remains available online. I found it a really interesting discussion, and I do encourage you to have a listen.

There is also a chance for us all to feed into the debate. As part of the project, Professor Rahman has launched a short survey to get a snapshot of people’s instinctive responses to the question, and to look at how this might vary by age and country of residence. I’m interested to see the results of that, so we can watch out for that in the future.

Feel free to contribute your thoughts!


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